Law catches up with Google cars
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MANUFACTURERS WORRY RULES MAY BE TOO RESTRICTIVE FOR TECHNOLOGY.
Companies developing self-driving cars of the future want US government regulators to clear the road for public access to the technology.
California’s Department of Motor Vehicles is wrestling with how to keep the public safe as the imperfect technology matures — but not regulate so heavily it stifles development of vehicles that could have huge safety benefits.
DMV officials last week began hearing from advocates and skeptics with strong opinions about precedent-setting draft regulations released in December. Google in particular says the agency’s cautious approach will stymie the technology.
The tech giant says human error is the biggest risk in driving, and the company wants to remove the steering wheel and pedals from cars, giving people minimal ability to take over.
But the DMV says cars must have a steering wheel in case computers or sensors — including radar, lasers and cameras — fail. A licensed driver would need to sit in the driver’s seat, ready to seize control in an emergency.
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 realises.
The DMV has been overseeing prototype testing on California roads for more than a year. There have been minor collisions, nearly all involving Google cars, all of which Google says were caused by other drivers.
The agency now must write regulations on how to move from testing to public use, and published its draft in December.
Last week, advocates for the blind argued the technology could change their lives, and the agency should not to get in the way.
“Please don’t leave my family out in the waiting room,” said Jessie Lorenz, who is blind and must use public transport to get her 4-year-old daughter to preschool. Lorenz said she has taken a ride in a Google car, “and it was awesome”.
DMV attorney Brian Soublet said the agency appreciates the potential benefits for the disabled, but its firm focus has to be on the safety of all the motoring public.
Last month, federal officials announced an aggressive plan to get the technology to the public’s hands sooner than later.
US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said his department will fast-track policies and possibly waive regulations.
In written guidance, federal officials projected that “fully automated vehicles are nearing the point at which widespread deployment is feasible”.
It remains unclear just how the bullish federal approach will affect the regulatory process in California, which has become a leader in self-driving car testing and regulation.
One thing seems likely: if California’s final regulations are close to the DMV draft, Google will focus deployment of cars without steering wheels elsewhere, possibly in Texas, where it began testing prototypes last summer.
Under California’s 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 manufacturer-provided training, and then get a special certification on their licenses.
If a car breaks the law, the driver would be responsible.