Despite Arizona Fatality, California Has No Plans to Delay Self-Driving Vehicles

New California regulations allow companies to test cars with no one in them as long as someone monitors each car from a remote location.

by Tony Bizjak, The Sacramento Bee / March 20, 2018
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(TNS) — California officials say they plan to review the cause of an Arizona pedestrian fatality Sunday night involving an autonomous Uber vehicle, but indicated they have no plans as of now to delay next month's planned testing of robot cars in the state.

The Arizona fatality occurred in the city of Tempe, where police say an Uber driverless vehicle hit a woman who was walking near a crosswalk.

It is believed to be the first instance nationally in which a completely autonomous self-driving vehicle has been involved in a fatal crash. The woman who was struck died later at a hospital.

Uber has suspended testing of its vehicles nationally in Phoenix, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Toronto, spokesperson Sarah Abboud said in an email to The Bee.

"Our hearts go out to the victim’s family. We’re fully cooperating with (Tempe police) and local authorities as they investigate this incident," Uber said.

A person was sitting in the driver's seat of the autonomous vehicle at the time of the crash, but was not operating the vehicle, Tempe police told local news media.

The state of California plans to allow companies to test cars on California city streets, starting April 2, some of them with no driver and no occupants in the car.

In a statement issued Monday morning, the state DMV indicated it doesn't plan to delay its permit issuance program unless it learns information from Tempe that causes a rethink.

"We need more information on the crash," spokesperson Jessica Gonzalez wrote in an email to The Bee. "Also we are allowed to issue permits on April 2, but it doesn’t mean a manufacturer will be approved.

"The California DMV takes the safe operation of our autonomous vehicle permit holders very seriously. The California DMV has many requirements in place for testing permit holders and requires collision reports and annual disengagement reports.

"We are aware of the Uber crash in Arizona, but we have not been briefed on the details of the crash at this time. We plan to follow up with Uber to get more information."

In a statement issued two weeks ago, state DMV Director Jean Shiomoto noted: "Safety is our top concern and we are ready to begin working with manufacturers that are prepared to test fully driverless vehicles in California."

Some 50 companies have registered with the state to do some sort of testing, and state officials say California represents a prime national market for companies eager to take the technology to the next level.

Some companies, such as Uber, Waymo — a subsidiary of Alphabet, Inc., formerly known as the Google autonomous vehicle project — and General Motors already have been testing autonomous cars on California city streets for several years. Waymo's tests have mainly been in Mountain View. General Motors is testing cars in San Francisco.

But any vehicle currently being tested on California streets has until now been required to have someone sitting in the driver's seat to take control, typically an engineer working for the test company. The new regulations will allow companies to test cars with no one in them, with someone monitoring each car from a remote location.

To obtain the new permits, companies will have to show state and federal officials that the vehicles meet safety standards and are capable of complying with traffic laws.

The testing company also must notify and "coordinate" with any city in which it plans to run its cars. Sacramento city officials have solicited technology companies to test their cars here on streets around the state capitol.

The permit allows testing on any public road, including freeways, but does not require companies to inform Caltrans or the CHP when it uses highways. Sacramento State is pushing for an autonomous shuttle between campus and a nearby light-rail station.

The state also will require a communication link between the vehicle and a "remote operator" who would monitor a vehicle being controlled by an on-board computer.

Also, the test company must have a way of letting others on the street know who the car owner is, in case that vehicle were to be in a crash. It must provide police a way to deactivate the car and communicate with the car company. The car must carry proof of insurance.

Vehicles without steering wheels or pedals would be legal for street tests, but only if the manufacturer gets an exemption approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The state also will allow car and tech companies, starting next month, to obtain a second permit that will allow autonomous cars to be used commercially on city streets in California, but only after tests show that they can operate safely. Companies like Uber are expected to seek those "deployment permits."

The state has not specified how long testing must be done before autonomous vehicles can be used for commercial purposes. That means an autonomous car company can apply with the DMV for a permit to sell its cars or use them for commercial purposes as soon as the company shows the vehicles meet safety and performance standards. Notably, the company has to show it has a system to shut the car down if it is hit by a cyber attack.

The fatality has thrown the spotlight once again on the debate about whether states are letting the autonomous car industry move too fast without proper regulation. Attorney Brian Kabateck, a consumer-advocate and president-elect of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, said he’s worried that “everyone is in such a rush, public safety going to be left behind in the discussion.

“If we have learned anything from the first 100, 150 years of industrialization, it is that lives are lost and people are maimed when we rush too fast to get some newfangled thing out there. It is going to be trial and error with human life.”

University of Southern California engineering professor Jeffrey Miller warned that more injuries and fatalities will happen as the technology develops, but advised the public not to overreact.

“Are there going to be problems? Of course. This technology is developed by people we are imperfect. We develop imperfect systems. Fatalities are going to happen.”

“It is not a good perspective for people to think that we are going to completely eliminate collisions. Are we going to reduce the 32,000 (annual fatalities caused by human drivers)? Without a doubt.”

Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Discovery Bay, Assembly Transportation Committee chair, said his committee will hold a May hearing “that will focus on the safety of these vehicles.”

“Autonomous vehicles have the potential to save thousands of lives a year, but they have to be tested properly to protect the public,” he wrote in a press statement.

More than 90 percent of crashes are caused by human error, federal data show. But polls show that many American drivers remain fearful of the crash potential of autonomous cars.

A survey published last month by the American Automobile Association found that 63 percent of U.S. drivers "report feeling afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle."

Some safety advocates argue the state is allowing the tech industry to push forward too quickly. Consumer Watchdog, a safety advocacy group, warned in a press release that the regulations allowing remote operators to monitor cars will turn autonomous tests "into a deadly video game that threatens highway safety."

Transportation and technology experts say they believe fully autonomous vehicles are an eventual certainty, it remains unclear how those vehicles may be used. Already, some transit agencies are laying plans for autonomous shuttle buses, and some companies are exploring buying autonomous cars for fleet use.

At some point, autonomous vehicles likely will be mass produced for consumer use. Advocates for the disabled are pushing for faster implementation of the technology to increase mobility options for non-drivers.

While most transportation officials say they expect autonomous cars, buses, trucks and other vehicles to become the norm at some point, the timing remains unknown. Several auto manufacturers say they will increasingly add automated capabilities over time to mass-produced cars rather than be fully autonomous immediately.

Automatic, but not fully autonomous technology, already is gaining ground in many newer model mass-produced cars. Some cars are equipped with technology that can automatically parallel park a car or automatically hit the brakes in an emergency situation. Some vehicles have technology that can keep a car in its lane on the freeway without driver assistance and warn a driver is another vehicle is in the driver's blind spot.

©2018 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.