Michigan Department of Transportation Director Kirk Steudle: States Should “Get Out of the Way” on Autonomous Vehicle Policy

CSG convened the Autonomous and Connected Vehicle Policy Academy June 12-14, 2017 in Detroit. A group of state policymakers from around the country attended the event. The academy included a keynote address from Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation, who outlined his state’s approach to autonomous and connected vehicle policy.

Count Kirk Steudle among those who believe that autonomous vehicles will be truly transformational.

“They will have the same impact that frankly the interstate highways did, that railroads did,” the director of the Michigan Department of Transportation told policy academy attendees at a dinner on June 13.

Steudle recognizes though that the testing, deployment and proliferation of autonomous vehicles isn’t going to happen overnight.

“But we’re starting down a path that frankly there is no exit ramp (from),” he said. “You can’t turn around. I have a firm belief that once something is technologically possible, it is impossible to stop it. … Elected officials may be able to put a barrier in place and slow it down but it is impossible to stop it. … It’s like trying to stop water from running downhill.”

Steudle said the pace of change in technology is accelerating often by the day, which is making things difficult for state policymakers.

“I think our challenge is going to be to manage it so that we don’t have unintended consequences, that we think about it ahead of time and that we harness it as best as possible,” he said.

But Steudle also believes that when it comes to rapidly changing technology in an area like autonomous vehicles, it also can require something else from policymakers that can be far more difficult: restraint.

“I think our job as public agencies, whether you’re a department person like me or a legislative elected member or staff, is really figuring out how to not get in the way,” he said. “How do you make it safe but how do you not get in the way? Because what I see going on right now is lots of handwringing (about) we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do that. We’ve got to first and foremost not get in the way. Because I don’t think there is any legislature anywhere in the country probably in the world that can react as fast as this technology’s coming.”

When it comes to autonomous vehicle policy, one might argue that Michigan didn’t get out of the way; it dove in head first. After first approving legislation to allow testing in the state in 2013, lawmakers moved a series of bills in 2016 designed to put the home of the automotive capital of the world on the autonomous vehicle map. Among the bills was SB 995 (now Public Act 332), which eliminated the state’s “test only” restriction and allowed driverless operation on public roads at any time with no special license or plate. While completely driverless operation of vehicles may still be years away, the purpose of the legislation is to allow developers to move forward quickly once the technology is ready, Steudle said.

“Instead of (developers) saying ‘okay, I did step one. May I go to step two?’ and then (we) have to pass a law to let them go to step two, these laws were intended to (say) ‘here’s the playing field: We’re going to let you go forward. When you say your technology is ready … you have permission to go but you are 100 percent responsible. … So it makes companies think a little more.”

Senate Bill 995 also allows for the platooning of commercial vehicles in the state. The U.S. Army and shipping and logistics companies are keen to further test truck platooning in the state.

“We’ve got some other tests coming up this year where they actually are going to do autonomous truck platooning with a driver in the front seat,” Steudle said. “Our law still requires that there still be a driver in the front seat and have a (commercial driver’s license). That’s only level one platooning. We did not feel comfortable going to high level (automation for trucks).”

Steudle said he thinks companies like the Uber-owned Otto that are working on driverless truck platooning in some states may be doing the concept a disservice.

“I will tell you personally, the general public is going to freak out when a driverless car goes by; imagine when a driverless truck goes by them,” he said. “I’ve told my colleagues in other states ‘hey, slow down. You’re going to do damage here.’ Because if you scare the public because you’ve got driverless trucks all over the place, we’re going to have a big problem. But they’re all charging ahead, which is fine. What we said here is Level 1 automation: accelerating and braking. That’s what can be controlled by the front vehicle. You still have to have a CDL, you still have to be in the front seat and you still have to steer.”

Other states looking to enable truck platooning may need to closely examine their state vehicle codes to determine whether it requires a defined following distance for commercial vehicles.

“Some of them say a ‘safe and prudent’ distance,” Steudle said. “You could say (platooning) could be allowed right now (under those laws). Ours specifically said 300 feet so ours was a simple change that said ‘unless connected by electronic platooning system’ … which then took away the following distance which would allow you to follow at whatever distance you felt comfortable. It did require that the truck platoon has to brake if there is someone trying to exit or enter the freeway.”

Among the other bills the legislature passed was Senate Bill 997 (now Public Act 334), which created the American Center for Mobility, an Ypsilanti Township facility that will focus on the testing, verification and self-certification of connected and automated vehicles and other mobility technologies. Five contractors are working to build the facility now at Willow Run, a former advanced aircraft manufacturing facility initially built by Henry Ford during World War II. The 330-acre facility, expected to open for testing in December, is designed to complement Mcity, the 32-acre proving ground now open at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Policy academy attendees had the opportunity to visit Mcity on June 14 and tour the facility in a fully autonomous vehicle.

As policy academy attendees would learn a day later, not everyone is a fan of Michigan’s legislative approach to autonomous vehicle policy however.

“Michigan is a state that did not envision a regulatory process but did put together a mesh of laws that are so confusing and self-contradictory that I read them dozens of times and still can’t figure out what they actually mean or what they actually do,” said Bryant Walker Smith, assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina during a June 14 policy academy session. “They are a true bewildering mess. This is again a reflection of the complications and pitfalls of moving so quickly legislatively in this field.”

But Steudle had a couple of words of advice for state lawmakers contemplating autonomous legislation in other states who may feel the temptation to wade in too deep.

“There is no bureaucrat in any of your states that knows what’s happening inside (an autonomous vehicle),” he said. “The only people that (do) are going to be the people who work at (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) because that’s their job. … These things are so complicated that you have to be doing this 100 percent of your time and probably be an automotive engineer or a software engineer to really understand what’s happening. … NHTSA needs to regulate inside the car. What happens outside the car, how it operates, which roads you allow it to go on, what are your insurance requirements—that’s up for the states.”

Congress is reportedly considering legislation this year that could seek to further define the state and federal roles in autonomous vehicle policy after a year that saw numerous bills introduced in state legislatures, which some fear could contribute to a confusing patchwork of laws around the country. From what he’s seen though, Steudle said Congress will likely not try to usurp the authority of states in their traditional areas of jurisdiction.

“I’ve publicly said to some of my colleagues in Washington ‘look, if you step over that line and you decide you’re going to start playing in all of the state legislatures and you’re going to take away all of their roles, you’re going to be in for a big battle,’” he said. “I don’t think that’s the intended case here.”

Steudle also advised that when state policymakers do consider autonomous vehicle legislation they be careful about trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to defining the technology or putting new vehicle certification regimes in place.

“If you reference levels of automation at all, first of all reference them back to (the Society of Automotive Engineers’ international standard),” he said. “Our legislation started on a path and we were very technical in all this stuff … and we finally decided (it was) way too difficult. … First of all, if we’ve got something in there and an SAE standard changes, now we’ve got to go get legislation. … I would encourage you to just reference what NHTSA does and say when you get certified by NHTSA, you can bring (a vehicle) here. If it’s not certified, we don’t want to see it. … Don’t create something else. And then, let NHTSA figure out the car and you work on everything outside the car.”