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Will California More Closely Scrutinize Driverless Car Crashes?

As the number of companies testing self-driving cars on public roads rises, nonprofit Consumer Watchdog says the public should have more information about the crashes those vehicles are getting into.

According to Google, none of the accidents its self-driving cars has been in was the fault of the vehicle, or rather the program making decisions for the vehicle. But for one nonprofit group, Google’s word isn’t enough — and that group has called on the California Department of Motor Vehicles to more closely scrutinize all companies testing autonomous vehicles in the state.

Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, has formally requested that the California DMV update its rules to require autonomous vehicle testers to submit more data when accidents happen. The state already requires operators to submit reports within 10 days of an accident that include information such as the location of the vehicle and the circumstances surrounding the accident. But Consumer Watchdog says the companies have more information than that, including video recordings of the crashes.

The implications of self-driving vehicles is significant — a Google employee wrote in a July blog post that autonomous vehicles could help address traffic problems like distracted driving, and a video the company released in 2012 showed a car driving a blind man to pick up his dry cleaning.

But John Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog, said the world needs to make sure the vehicles are safe first.

“Before we get to the point of these things running all over the roads, we need to be able to understand why things went wrong when they went wrong, and that’s going to help us develop appropriate safety rules going forward,” he said.

The video Google and other companies collect from autonomous vehicles, along with data from the cars’ sensors, should be made available to the DMV as it works to put together rules that will govern the use of self-driving vehicles for the general public and not just for testing, Simpson said.

“They record the speed of the car, how hard the brakes were put on, that kind of stuff,” he said.

That information would help shed light on exactly what happens when self-driving cars get into accidents, which Simpson said is important since the testing is happening on public roads — largely in the Bay Area, though Google recently expanded its testing grounds to Austin, Texas.

“Some of the public is potentially in harm’s way, and that means there needs to be absolute transparency about what goes wrong,” Simpson said.

According to the DMV website, 10 different companies have received state permits to test autonomous vehicles — among them Google and several automotive giants like Honda, Nissan and Volkswagen. Emails with the DMV public affairs office that Simpson shared with Government Technology show that Google has the largest fleet of test cars by far, with 48 on California roads as of Aug. 14. Tesla had the next-largest fleet at 12 cars.

Google has been testing its autonomous cars since 2009, according to a monthly newsletter the company publishes on its driverless car program. Since then, its cars have been involved in 16 accidents. The company selects case studies of accidents for its newsletters and describes the accidents in detail: On Aug. 20, a car rear-ended one of Google’s autonomous vehicles at an intersection in front of Eagle Park in Mountain View as the Google driver took over the controls and slowed down to give way to a pedestrian crossing the street. On July 1, another one of Google’s cars was rear-ended at an intersection near Mountain View’s Frank L. Huff Elementary School when two vehicles stopped at a green light in front of the Google car, forcing the self-driving program to stop as well.

The last incident prompted Google to release an 8-second YouTube video showing what the self-driving car “saw” at the intersection during the crash.

Still, Simpson said, the company should be releasing all it has for every accident.

“We think that this is simply too important to be left up to the companies responsible for self-reporting,” he said.

While Google’s monthly newsletters state that the autonomous vehicles weren’t responsible for any of the accidents, Simpson said it’s possible that the vehicles could have contributed to the crashes nonetheless.

“The vehicle might behave in a different way than the driver might expect … stopping more abruptly or whatever,” he said.

As he understands it, Simpson said state law requires the DMV to respond to the rulemaking request within 30 days of submission. He submitted the request on Sept. 24.

Bernard Soriano, deputy director of the California DMV, said the purpose of the testing regulations is to help the department understand how to regulate autonomous vehicles as Google and other companies make progress toward offering the cars to the public.

“We want to get an idea of how the testing programs are proceeding throughout the state, because for us the No. 1 priority is the safety of the motoring public," he said, "and we need to ensure that [with] any regulations we develop … the motoring public is safe as the technology is deployed."

He declined to comment on whether the type of information Consumer Watchdog wants the companies to disclose — videos, vehicle speeds, rate of deceleration and more — would help the department in that goal.

“It’s way too early to say what type of response we’re going to have [to the petition],” Soriano said.

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.

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