The California Department of Motor Vehicle’s proposal, released Wednesday, raised the bar on what’s considered to be the fundamental question for autonomous vehicles: Will we trust the machine or the human?
The California DMV’s proposal, which will receive public comments before being finalized, states that all autonomous vehicles would need a steering wheel and pedals when operating on California’s public roads. A licensed driver with an autonomous vehicle operator certificate would have to be in the car behind the wheel, capable of taking control to avoid a collision. Safety of the autonomous vehicles and the public who share the roads with these vehicles is the primary concern, DMV said.
Google Inc., which has been testing self-driving cars in California since 2009, released a statement opposing the DMV rule. “This maintains the same old status quo and falls short on allowing this technology to reach its full potential, while excluding those who need to get around but cannot drive….We can do better,” Chris Urmson, the director of the Google self-driving project since its inception, said in a statement.
Deciding if the self-driving car or its occupant is legally responsible for collisions has been at the center of debates over how to regulate driverless cars. Here’s an overview of the debate on whether the California DMV or Google philosophy will eventually win out:
- While a few other states have been considering autonomous vehicles on their roads, California has been the epicenter of road testing with more than a million miles already being driven. The companies certified to test autonomous cars on California roads are automakers BMW, Ford, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Tesla and Volkswagen Group; suppliers Bosch and Delphi; and technology companies Google and Cruise Automation. Ford is the most recent company to secure a permit from California to begin testing its self-driving car on public roads beginning next year. Ford will test its Ford Fusion Hybrid car.
- California’s proposed regulations would require car owners to get a special state-issued driver’s certificate after receiving training from a car company on how to use a driverless vehicle. Autonomous cars also would have to pass a test administered by a third party before being sold. Automakers would only be allowed to lease driverless cars versus selling them to registered owners. The self-driving car will be required to carry a data recorder, and the human onboard is responsible for any traffic violations. The manufacturer must pay a $33,000 to $50,000 processing fee, and may have to cover any costs incurred during certification.
- Companies like Google and a few of the automakers may move their autonomous vehicle testing programs to other states, such as Texas. This summer, Google started testing its self-driving cars in Austin, Texas. Google has been testing four self-driving Lexus cars in Austin with an employee in the driver’s seat ready to take control if necessary. Four months into Google’s test drives, Texas transportation officials seem to be unsure how to regulate their safe operation statewide. Unlike California and a few other states, Texas has no obvious regulatory restrictions on self-driving vehicles.
- Google and other major developers of self-driving cars have generally warned the DMV that strict rules could slow the rollout of the technology, and some consumer groups have called for regulation to ensure that self-driving cars are safe.
- A recent study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute in Ann Arbor, Mich., found that the accident rate for self-driving cars has been twice as high as for regular cars. Driverless vehicles have never been at fault, the study found: They’re usually hit from behind in slow-speed crashes by inattentive or aggressive humans unaccustomed to cars driving that slowly and carefully ahead of them. Google cars have been in 17 minor crashes in 2 million miles of testing and account for most of the reported accidents, according to the Michigan study. That’s partly because the company is testing mainly in California, where accidents involving driverless cars must be reported. Recent Google crashes include one in Mountain View, Calif., where the driverless car came to a full stop at a red light and began slowly creeping forward. Another car stopped behind the Google test car and began rolling forward into the right turn, rear-ending it at 4 mph. A few days later, a Mountain View motorcycle police offer became the first cop to pull over a self-driving car. The Google car was going 24 mph in a busy 35 mph zone with several vehicles stacking up behind it. The officer didn’t issue a traffic citation ticket, but did warn the two Google engineers riding in the test car that the slow speed was creating a hazard.
- Google plans to make its self-driving cars unit a stand-alone business under its parent company Alphabet Inc. next year – and it could offer ride-hailing services similar to Uber and Lyft. Under the new Alphabet corporate structure, search, advertising, maps, YouTube, and Android are part of the Google unit. Other business units will include connected home products maker Nest, venture capital arm Google Ventures, and Google X, the research arm which houses the self-driving car unit. Google Ventures has invested in Uber, and there’s speculation Google and Uber could partner to roll out self-driving cars for ridesharing and delivery services. Google will launch its self-driving car unit with services available at first in San Francisco and Austin. The fleets may be deployed first in confined areas like college campuses, military bases, or corporate office parks.
- Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the agency does not yet have a position on California’s proposal to bar autonomous cars without a person in the driver’s seat ready to take over. Rosekind said he opposes a “patchwork” of state regulations on driverless cars and promised a “nimble, flexible” approach to writing new rules for self-driving vehicles. In 2013, NHTSA submitted a proposal that’s yet to be approved, setting a national standard for self-driving vehicle safety. Here’s the 2013 NHTSA announcement on its five-level recommended structure for autonomous vehicle testing.