Self-driving car regulations in California: baby-steps

SACRAMENTO — During a hearing early February, California regulators thinking about how to permit the rollout of self-driving cars were told by consumer advocates that their cautious approach was right on, and by companies developing the technology that the state’s current course will delay deployment of autonomous vehicles.

The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles heard the comments at a workshop it held, the agency was seeking suggestions of possible changes to a draft of precedent-setting regulations it released last month.  Those regulations will govern how Californians can get the cars after prototypes are tested. Because California has been a hotbed for the development and regulation of the cars, what happens in the state has ripple effects nationally. Next to Tesla, there are many startups in Silicon Valley developing technologies needed for self-driving cars.

There was a lot of discussion on the merits of the technology. Most vocal were advocates for the blind — a group that has not been central to the debate. “Please don’t leave my family out in the waiting room,” said Jessie Lorenz, who is blind and relies on public transit to get her 4-year-old daughter to preschool. Lorenz would prefer to use a self-driving car for that — or even for a “spontaneous road trip.”

She said she has taken a ride in a self-driving car that Google Inc. has been developing, “and it was awesome.”  Google wants California to clear the road for the technology — and has expressed disappointment in the DMV’s draft regulations, which say self-driving cars must have a steering wheel in case onboard computers or sensors fail. A licensed driver would need to sit in the driver’s seat, ready to seize control in an emergency.

“We need to be careful about the assumption that having a person behind the wheel” will make driving safer, Chris Urmson, the leader of Google’s self-driving car project, told the agency.  Google has concluded that human error is the biggest danger in driving, and the company wants to remove the steering wheel and pedals from self-driving cars, giving people minimal ability to intervene.  Urmson said that if the draft regulations are not changed, Google’s car would not be available in the state. While Google and nearly a dozen other companies have been testing on California roads — with trained safety drivers behind the wheel, just in case — Google seems sure to focus deployment of cars without steering wheels elsewhere. Texas, where Google began testing prototypes last summer, looms large.

Under the draft framework, an independent certifier would need to verify a manufacturer’s assurances that its cars are safe. Google and traditional automakers want manufacturer self-certification, the standard for other cars.

Once a company receives that verification, manufacturers would receive a permit for three years. Consumers could lease the cars, but manufacturers would be required to keep tabs on how safely they are driving and report that performance to the state. Drivers would need special, manufacturer-provided training, and then get a special certification on their licenses.

If a car breaks the law, the driver would be responsible.

Earlier this month, federal officials announced an aggressive plan to get the technology to the public’s hands sooner than later. In written guidance, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is part of the federal Department of Transportation, projected that “fully automated vehicles are nearing the point at which widespread deployment is feasible.”   Neither Google nor traditional automakers have said they think the cars are ready yet, but at least a dozen companies are developing the technology. Google has suggested a model could be ready for limited use sooner than the public realizes.