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California Needs to Lead the Country in AV Policy (Editorial)

With officials reviewing state regulations regarding autonomous vehicles, the pressure is on to get them right.

(TNS) -- The news broke Tuesday that Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving project, has begun testing autonomous vehicles without backup drivers.

Memo to California: With an update of state regulations of autonomous vehicles in the works, the pressure is on to get them right.

The state that spawned this enormously promising, Next-Big-Thing technology needs to be a model for others, and ideally federal regulation. It has to both continue to encourage the development of these vehicles and satisfy legitimate safety concerns. Transparency of safety records will be key to doing that.

What’s at stake? No less than an $800 billion business — double the current size of the smartphone industry — by 2035 and $7 trillion (yes, with a “t”) by 2050, according to an Intel study released in June. And it’s not just a financial boon. The potential for safer roads and better transportation options for an aging population is enormous.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles proposed a revised set of regulations in October. They’re scheduled to be completed by the end of the year and become law in June.

California has been regulating self-driving cars since 2012 and has walked the tightrope between promoting innovation and addressing reasonable safety concerns. But so far, unlike Arizona and many other states, it has required a driver to be on board. The proposed rules would allow fully driverless cars.

California’s new regulations need to require the industry to be completely transparent about safety measures, test results and the frequency and cause of accidents. This should be as valuable to the industry as to the public: At a time when Big Tech increasingly is not seen as the public’s friend, it’s critical for the industry to build trust with consumers at every step of the process.

Transportation experts estimate that self-driving vehicles could reduce traffic fatalities by up to 90 percent. This would be huge for California, where traffic deaths increased 13 percent in 2016 to 3,680.

But Americans have been slow to embrace the concept. A Pew Research Center survey released Oct. 4 found that 56 percent of American adults “would not want to ride in a driverless vehicle if given the opportunity.” There is “a lack of confidence in robotic decision-making and general safety concerns.”

California’s proposed regulations require firms to use a standardized template for reporting “disengagements,” when backup drivers take over operation of the vehicle, presumably for a reason. They would require written notifications to cities and counties stating when and where driverless tests will occur in their jurisdictions.

Proposed federal legislation threatens to supersede California’s laws. That would be a mistake. While there are advantages to having a national standard, allowing states the flexibility to experiment has merit. The federal proposal fails to provide adequate enforcement of required evaluations about how vehicles are responding to emergencies or technical problems.

California should use its technical expertise to set rules that both spread sunshine on safety concerns and encourage further innovation. The industry can only reach its full potential if people aren’t afraid of it.

©2017 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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