LANSING — Michigan drivers could be traveling among self-driving cars by early next year.

A package of bills passed by the Legislature allows researchers to test drive autonomous vehicles on public roads, broadening research centers’ ability to perfect the vehicles. The bills now go to the governor for his signature, expected by the end of the year.

Autonomous vehicles operate without a driver. According to studies done by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, they could increase productivity due to less time spent traveling, lower crash severity, improvement in road safety and reduction of emissions.

The loosening of regulations on self-driving cars puts Michigan on top in terms of leading the industry in freedom to research autonomous vehicles. Other states with similar freedoms include Nevada, Arizona, Florida and California.

“Michigan will certainly be among the top couple states in this industry,” said Kelly Bartlett, senior policy and legislative director for Michigan Department of Transportation.

The move could keep Michigan at the forefront of auto industry design, bring about innovation and take advantage of the growing technology.

“This field is moving so fast and growing so quickly,” Bartlett said. “[Companies] want to get into the autonomous vehicle industry.”

“Advances in autonomous technology will allow Michigan drivers and their passengers to be safer on the road,” said Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, sponsor of several of the bills in the package.

Kowall said that the new regulations will allow Michigan’s economy to benefit from new technology and innovation in the automotive industry.

“It’s important that you don’t just take our word for it,” said MDOT’s director of communications Jeff Cranson, predicting that driverless cars have a big future. “The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is heavily involved in sorting through this and what they can do from a regulatory structure.”

Companies that will take advantage of these new laws include Ford, GM, State Farm, LG, Verizon, Nissan and many more, according to Kowall. This paves the way for testing for these companies and broadening research, Bartlett said. But it will not be a straight jump to autonomous vehicles should they become available.

“The technology will slowly be added on each year. Right now the big thing is self-parking, especially with parallel parking,” Bartlett said. Some cars on the market today can park themselves, he said, an example of how the technology crosses product lines.

The benefit of self-driving cars isn’t just for advancement in technology. Elderly residents of the state could no longer have to worry about driving. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Michigan has one of the oldest populations in the country, with about 14 percent of residents in the state 65 or older, compared to 17 percent in Florida.

Director of MDOT Kirk Steudle testified at a U.S. House subcommittee hearing this month on the benefits autonomous cars could have for drivers in their “golden years.”

“Driverless cars offer us the opportunity to grant all this autonomy to our full range of residents, not just those between the age of 16 and 85 or 90,” Steudle said in his testimony.

— CAITLIN DeLUCA, Capital News Service