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Leading the Charge on Regulating Self-Driving Cars, Will California Take the Fast or Slow Route?

At a public workshop in Sacramento, Calif., the auto industry pushed for the state to allow fully autonomous vehicles as opposed to the proposal that only lets cars drive themselves if a licensed driver is behind the wheel and ready to take over.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Among a roomful of people who gathered in California’s capital city Thursday, Jan. 28, to discuss the future of transportation, nobody questioned whether cars will drive themselves in the future. They only questioned when that day would come.

And yet that’s become the most controversial question for the California Department of Motor Vehicles’ approach to self-driving cars. The department has proposed draft regulations that would require a licensed driver to sit behind the wheel of autonomous vehicles — effectively prohibiting fully autonomous cars until manufacturers can prove their safety through mass deployment amongst the public. In the meantime, autonomous vehicles would only be allowed to operate under limited conditions and would need to be able to turn control over to a human whenever it began operating outside those conditions.

The speakers present for the DMV’s first public workshop to gather input on these proposed regulations — among them representatives of consumer advocacy organizations, trade groups, auto manufacturers and public technology officials — all extolled the virtues of the self-driving car. They cited the thousands of people killed by human drivers every year. They spoke of the possibilities a world of easily-accessible transportation for senior citizens and people with disabilities would bring. They talked about congestion and parking problems.

Those representing companies actively involved in testing AVs told the DMV spokespeople present that they want the regulations changed to allow for full autonomous cars so long as they can prove that those cars are safer than humans.

“I’m talking about a point where autonomous cars have been proven to be safer than humans,” said Matt Schwall of Tesla Motors. “Therefore the blatant prohibition against operating without an operator is unnecessary, and what it does is discourage the autonomous vehicles and delay the safety benefits.”

Brian Soublet, the DMV’s chief counsel, told the room that the regulations promote safety above all, and that the department wants to move cautiously so as not to allow dangerous vehicles on the road.

“I don’t know if any one of the manufacturers would stand up and say, ‘We’ve got a car that’s ready to roll tomorrow, that can operate completely independently,’” Soublet said. “The point is, we want to get there, but we want to get there in a way that’s safe for everybody.”

The meeting became emotional at times as members of disability groups got up to speak. Teresa Favuzzi, executive director of the California Foundation for Independent Living Centers, framed the regulations as another example of society designing a system without considering people with disabilities — much in the same way that architects of the past designed buildings with stairs instead of ramps.

“We hear that a lot, we hear, ‘Well, we’ll get that figured out later. Let us just get all this stuff done, and let’s figure out how to make it accessible later,’” Favuzzi said.

Justin Harford, a blind man from Grass Valley, urged the department not to delay access to all the benefits of mobility that are now closed to people like him. He said that many job listings require applicants to have a driver’s license or car.

“I find that what this is really about is who gets to access transportation and commerce and who doesn't,” Harford said. “And I’m frankly kind of a little tired of people with disabilities not getting to access commerce.”

The California DMV will host a second public workshop Tuesday, Feb. 2 in Los Angeles, and that’s still outside the formal rulemaking process it must engage in. But above it all looms a cloud of uncertainty blowing in from Washington, D.C. — United States Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced on Jan. 14 that within six months, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) plans to put out model policy guidelines for states to regulate AVs. An NHTSA statement released in conjunction with Foxx’s announcement made it clear that such rules would leave open a door for fully autonomous vehicles.

Several speakers during the workshop urged the DMV to wait for the federal guidelines to come down before putting out regulations that could go against the grain of the rest of the nation.

“We believe that all stakeholders, including regulators, [should] strive to ensure that we don’t frustrate, slow or prohibit the deployment of innovative technologies by creating a patchwork of requirements across various jurisdictions,” said Emily Frascaroli, legal counsel for Ford Motor Co.

The DMV has yet to say how the U.S. DOT’s guidelines could impact its own rulemaking process, but Soublet told the room on Thursday that the DMV is working with NHTSA and other stakeholders on model policies.


Chris Urmson, head of Google's self-driving car project, addresses representatives of the California Department of Motor Vehicles on Thursday in Sacramento. Photo by Ben Miller.

Meanwhile, several companies working on autonomous technology are testing it out in other states, such as Google in Austin, Texas, and Ford at the University of Michigan. Chris Urmson, head of Google’s self-driving car project, told the regulators that his company wouldn’t be able to provide the cars it’s working on in California if the DMV adopted the regulations as proposed.

“We’re focused on developing a fully autonomous car … that requires no monitoring by a human,” he said. “It would [perform] the whole of the driving task, and on the basis of the proposed DMV regulations we are discussing here today, it would not be available in California.”

There were several other sticking points in the meeting. One of the largest was a requirement that any AV operators obtain a certificate to drive their AV on top of the standard driver’s license. That’s to make sure that the driver knows the limits of his or her vehicle, Soublet said, but automakers said that it would be unnecessary because drivers have already adapted to changes in vehicle technology as it’s become available without additional training.

Another contentious item among manufacturers was the DMV’s proposal to require companies to test their AVs with a third party in order to receive a permit to sell those vehicles in California. The standard testing process, regulated by NHTSA, allows companies to self-certify the safety of their vehicles. But on Thursday, auto industry representatives said such a step would be an unnecessary burden and could open the door for inconsistent safety certifications, giving some companies a competitive advantage over others.

At the end of the meeting, Soublet stressed that the regulations are not set in stone and could change during the coming months.

“The goal," he said, "is, ‘Let’s get it right.’”

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.