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California DMV Regulations for Self-Driving Cars Earn Mixed Reviews

The draft regulations require a licensed driver to be present in cars while in autonomous mode. Experts said on Wednesday that that move could put AVs on the road more quickly, but prevent their full benefit from being realized.

With a stroke of its pen, the California Department of Motor Vehicles on Wednesday moved the country one step closer to the age of the self-driving car.

But it was not able to escape controversy in the process. The first draft of the department’s proposed regulations for non-testing use of autonomous vehicles was met with mixed reviews — Google, which has quite possibly the largest self-driving vehicle program, framed the regulations as preventing innovators from offering the full benefit of the nascent technology, while others posited that the regulations might actually open the door for autonomous vehicles to hit the road sooner.

That’s because the regulations don’t allow for cars that can drive themselves without a human being present and capable of taking over at a moment’s notice. That means the technology probably won’t offer mobility to those who are already lacking it — the blind, for instance, or the elderly — and it also stands at odds with the concept of communal vehicle services that provide autonomous transport at the click of a button.

Further, the department has split the state’s roadways into three categories — urban, rural and highway — and called on manufacturers to choose which ones their vehicles will drive autonomously on. That means that self-driving cars, depending on the manufacturer’s permit, only operate in autonomous mode on highways but not surface streets, or vice versa. They might operate in fair weather but ask the driver to take over when it starts raining.

DMV officials said during a conference call Wednesday morning that they will consider allowing fully autonomous vehicles after more testing has taken place in the future. In the meantime, they’ve defended their decision not to allow full autonomy just yet.

“The whole guiding principle to us in guiding these regulations … is to ensure that these vehicles are safe on California streets,” said Bernard Soriano, the DMV’s chief information officer, during the call.

Johnny Luu, a spokesperson for Google, wrote in an email statement that safety is also the company’s first priority in the development of AVs — but the tech giant still thinks regulators are moving too slow.

“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,” Luu wrote in the statement. “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.”

Representatives of two other companies working on autonomous vehicle technology — Tesla Motors and General Motors — offered neither criticism nor praise for the regulations on Wednesday, but promised to provide input to the California DMV through the regulatory process.

The regulations are not yet finalized, and the department promised to gather plenty of public input before settling on a solid version of the rules. That process will begin with a pair of public workshops in January and February.

But even with a regulatory slog ahead of it, University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute faculty member Brandon Schoettle said that the rule proposal could put AVs on the road sooner rather than later.

That’s because the regulations favor what federal regulators call “level two” autonomy instead of going straight for fully autonomous vehicles. And asking manufacturers to allow the vehicles to drive themselves only under certain conditions means that those working on the software don’t have to worry about solving quite as many problems before their vehicles hit the market — whenever there’s a problem, just hand the controls back to the driver.

“Being able to limit those things makes some of these a little less troublesome,” Schoettle said. “If you for example only operate in [Los Angeles] and you don’t ever plan to take this into the mountains to go skiing sometimes, you’ll be fine.”

Schoettle said there's also a good chance California's regulations end up becoming the model for the rest of the nation. The state's regulations have influenced nationwide trends on environmental policies in the past, partially because companies that need to meet the largest state's regulations often opt to make those adjustments for its national operations.

"If you take the lead on this, people are designing to meet your regulations," he said.

For the “behavioral competency” component of the regulations, the department will be leaning on the expertise of the University of California, Berkeley’s Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology (PATH) program. The department is asking researchers in the program to conduct a peer review among those working in the field to help inform the technical aspects of how to determine whether a car can drive itself while obeying traffic laws and the DMV regulations.

The potential behavioral competencies a manufacturer will need to display make up a pretty long list, according to PATH Program Manager Steven Shladover. One major step will be ensuring that the cars can reliably recognize when they are faced with conditions under which the human is supposed to be driving and then hand control over to the driver — or refuse to engage autonomous mode in the first place, depending on the situation.

“A lot of this has to do with making sure that the vehicle satisfies its own specifications,” Shladover said.

Schoettle and his colleague Michael Sivak studied the public data on AV crashes earlier in 2015 and found that one place where there isn’t much insight available on how self-driving cars will perform is during inclement weather. While Google has tried to expose its test AVs to as many “weird” scenarios as its team can come up with, there are still those who have their doubts that the vehicles will be able to handle each and every scenario, and never need a human to take over.

John Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project, is one of those people.

“[In rush hour traffic,] the way that you let people in usually is you kind of give them a hand gesture. And I don’t know how a robot car would deal with that situation,” Simpson said. “I don’t know how they deal with a situation where a traffic cop is giving signals. I don’t know how they deal with a situation where a traffic light is burned out. I’ve read reviews saying that it’s very difficult for them to make left hand turns when there’s oncoming traffic because they’re too cautious.”

That’s one reason Simpson applauded the DMV’s regulatory caution.

“I think they’re spot on,” he said. “I think they took exactly the right approach here. They’re encouraging innovation and at the same time they’re saying, ‘Look, our first [priority] here needs to be the safety of the public.’”

Simpson also praised a portion of the regulation draft that requires manufacturers to disclose to drivers what information they will collect from autonomous vehicles and obtain consent to gather that information.

“Robot car technology should be about getting from point A to point B," he said, "not about collecting all sorts of data about what you did along the way."

The full text of the draft regulations is here.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.