SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Nearly 200 local government officials, federal transportation policymakers and private industry representatives gathered in the California Capitol building on Oct. 19 to comment on and share concerns about recent revisions, released in late September, to the California Department of Motor Vehicles' (DMV) draft guidelines for the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles (AVs) in the state.
“The goal is to get this type of life-saving technology on the streets as soon it can be,” said DMV Chief Counsel Brian Soublet. “But also, to make sure that it is done in a safe manner.”
Over the last several years, the DMV has taken a collaborative approach, working with manufacturers, consumers, public interest groups, the disabled community, local agencies, academic/research institutions and other stakeholders.
However, many at the hearing were still not pleased with the latest revisions. The concerns generate primarily from the discrepancies between the federal policy released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the DMV draft regulation. Also at issue is that the revisions would require companies to “self-certify” that their vehicles meet both federal vehicle safety standards and NHTSA’s guidelines for autonomous vehicles.
Many of the speakers who addressed the panel represented automakers and trade groups, and their concerns with the DMV's guidelines generally fell within three particular areas.
A lot of confusion surrounds how much data and what type of data must be disclosed.
The federal policy states that a data-recording and data-sharing policy should be worked out with relevant standards-creating bodies in order to hasten the process of deployment. California's draft regulations, however, require manufacturers to equip the vehicles with data recorders and release the data within 24 hours to law enforcement agencies.
The primary understanding is that sharing data will help manufacturers to understand mistakes made by other developers. By sharing information on collisions, sudden braking and acceleration, for instance, there will be a reduction in errors that cause such mistakes.
“Data sharing is an essential component,” said Jennifer Cohen of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation. “Crash and disengagement data must be shared with local municipalities and with the state.”
But a potential fear among AV developers is that this data could become public record and reveal information about how to operate and program a self-driving vehicle. This could create competitive disadvantages for California manufacturers.
“Regulations that require manufacturers to describe how they achieve their results is tantamount to forced disclosure of intellectual property and trade secrets,” said Peter Leroe-Muñoz, vice president for the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, whose sentiments were echoed by representatives from General Motors and Audi.
Another point of contention was the requirement that any AV testing must receive municipal permits or specific ordinances allowing the experiment. The draft regulations maintain that any testing of vehicles without a human driver present can only be done with the explicit consent of the local community in the form of an ordinance or resolution.
But this creates an unnecessary amount of red tape that hinders the deployment of autonomous vehicles, explained Ron Medford, safety director for Google's self-driving car.
“Having three layers of government overseeing the testing of self-driving cars,” he said, “could create a patchwork of regulations.”
Perhaps the most common concern voiced was fear that the DMV has effectively mandated the U.S. Department of Transportation’s 15-step safety self-checklist. The NHTSA policy clearly states that the checklist, which the administration refers to as the "Guidance," is not mandatory, "and is not intended for States to codify as legal requirements for the development, design, manufacture, testing, and operation of automated vehicles.”
Federal Safety Self-Checklist
The federal policy suggests that manufacturers submit a "self-check" letter to state and federal agencies signaling that it passed all of the tests, but does not require this.
The DMV drafted rules, however, state that the manufacturers must submit a safety assessment letter explaining how it performs in relation to the aforementioned test. By requiring this letter, many automotive representatives argue that the DMV has effectively mandated the voluntary guidelines. If adopted in its current form, the DMV regulations run contrary to the NHTSA goal of having its policy and rules be a flexible, living document.
The panel committed to taking concerns raised into consideration before releasing finalized regulations, and DMV Director Jean Shiomoto said that together, through collaboration, the department will be able to get the final guidelines right the first time around.
Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.
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