Thanks to the existence of Silicon Valley, the state of California has been at the heart of the autonomous vehicle revolution now for more than six years.
While it has only allowed the testing of autonomous vehicles on its roads since 2013, Silicon Valley software giant Google is seen by many to be the company which took autonomous vehicle technology out of the laboratory, refined it, and made it capable of operating in the real world. Long before it could operate its fleet of autonomous Toyota Prius hybrids and later, self-driving Lexus 450h SUVs and custom-built pod-like autonomous electric cars on the public highway, Google’s team of engineers were leading the way in autonomous vehicle technology.
Today, Google is just one of many big-name companies pursuing autonomous vehicle development and research in California. With California one of just a handful of U.S. states where autonomous vehicle testing is allowed on the public highway — albeit with a fully-trained, fully-licensed operator behind the wheel — nearly every major automaker now has its own Silicon Valley tech centre where autonomous vehicle technology is being developed, tested and refined.
Together, all are working to a future where vehicles are safer, cleaner, smarter and easier to use — and one in which human error behind the wheel is no-longer a major threat on the public highway.
But draft regulations published today by the California Department of Motor Vehicles could dash that dream for the foreseeable future, imposing strict regulations on autonomous vehicle ownership and operation which would not only preclude the existence of driverless cars but make it impossible for those who cannot drive now to own and operate a driverless car.
The proposals, published this morning, have been released in accordance with Senate Bill 1298 (Chapter 570; Statues of 2012). That legislation, passed in 2012, requires the California DMV to “adopt regulations governing both the testing and use of autonomous vehicles on the public roadways.”
In May last year, the California DMV approved regulations governing the testing and operation of autonomous vehicles on California’s roads by automakers and other entities involved in developing autonomous vehicle technology. Those regulations, which came into effect in September last year, made it possible for companies involved in autonomous vehicle technology to test their vehicles on the road, assuming of course they could meet the high financial costs of doing so.
Following public workshops conducted in April 2013, March 2014 and January 2015 at which it sought advice from manufacturers, research and academic institutions, public advocacy groups and ‘other stakeholders,’ the California DMV says if adopted, its proposed regulations would give manufacturers the framework needed to transition autonomous vehicles from testing to production, deploying autonomous vehicle technology in a “safe and responsible manner” on California’s roads.
Those interested can read the full proposed draft regulations for themselves, but they essentially cover four basic rules which could have a dramatic impact on the way in which autonomous vehicles are not only developed, tested and driven in California but across the U.S.
Firstly, manufacturers will be required to certify each new autonomous drive vehicle model complies with specific vehicle safety and performance requirements. Those certifications will be backed up by a third-party independent test of an autonomous vehicle’s function and safety features by state-appointed testing organizations in order to verify those criteria are met. This is similar to the emissions testing requirements that all automakers must pass in order to sell their cars in the state of California.
Second, and most damaging to autonomous vehicle technology, is the proposed requirement that a licensed operator will be required to be inside the vehicle behind the wheel at all times, capable of taking control of the vehicle in the event of a technology failure or other emergency. Those drivers will need to not only be fully-licensed car drivers, but also have a specialised permit from the California DMV on their license in order for them to operate an autonomous vehicle.
If the car commits a traffic violation, or is involved in an accident, the driver — not the automaker — will be held responsible.
As a consequence, this draft regulation precludes driverless cars, cars without any manual controls, and indeed the autonomous ‘return home’ features that some academics say will halve the number of cars on our roads, cutting congestion and pollution.
It also completely smashes any hopes some had that autonomous vehicles would give true independence and mobility to those who cannot drive a conventional car, either through physical disability or medical prohibition.
Most frustrated by that statement is of course Google, whose autonomous vehicle program — which is due to become its own standalone company next year as part of Google’s rebranding of itself as Alphabet — has always highlighted the benefits autonomous vehicle technology can bring the visually impaired.
“In developing vehicles that can take anyone from A to B at the push of a button, we’re hoping to transform mobility for millions of people, whether by reducing the 94 percent of accidents caused by human error or bringing everyday destinations within reach of those who might otherwise be excluded by their inability to drive a car,” a Google spokesperson told us this afternoon via email in response to this particular proposed regulation. “Safety is our highest priority and primary motivator as we do this. We’re gravely disappointed that California is already writing a ceiling on the potential for fully self-driving cars to help all of us who live here.”
The third major requirement proposed by the California DMV would affect the ongoing operation of autonomous vehicles under a three-year deployment permit. For the first three years, manufacturers will be required to regularly report on the performance, usage and safety of their autonomous vehicles. A ‘provisional’ permit, the three-year deployment permit will then be used by the DMV to evaluate the performance of the vehicles moving forward, and says the DMV, will inform future regulatory actions.
Finally, a Privacy and Cyber-Security Requirement will force manufacturers to disclose to the operator if information (other than that which is required to safely operate the vehicle) is being collected. Additionally, each autonomous vehicle will be required to come with its own on-board self-diagnostics and firewall software to detect any unauthorised remote access to the vehicle. It must then alert the operator and allow them to assume manual control of the vehicle until the threat has been mitigated.
While Google has been vocal in its disappointment with the California DMV over the proposed autonomous vehicle legislation, other parties are being a little more cautious in their response.
“We are reviewing the draft and will continue to work with officials to ensure that any necessary new regulations support continued innovation in new beneficial technologies,” a Tesla spokesperson told us via email this afternoon. Meanwhile, Nissan — which has a specialist autonomous drive research facility in Silicon Valley — told us that “we currently reviewing the draft regulations that were released earlier today. We look forward to providing feedback to the California DMV.”
Delphi, the tier-one automotive parts supplier which sent a fully autonomous Audi from coast to coast earlier this year, told us via email that it would defer commentary until it has had time to thoroughly evaluate the proposed regulations and offered its input to the California DMV.
We’ve reached out to other autonomous vehicle stakeholders for comment on the regulations, but at the time of writing have not yet received official responses. As always, when we have them, we’ll add them in.
What do you make of the new autonomous vehicle regulations being proposed by the state of California? Do you think they will help or hinder autonomous vehicle adoption? And what of those cars which already have partial autonomous drive capabilities?
Is this a step backwards, or a necessary cautionary adoption policy of a new technology most consumers aren’t comfortable with? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.
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