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Driverless Cars on California Roads Could be Regulated

State Sen. Alex Padilla introduces legislation that would regulate testing of autonomous vehicles on California’s roadways.

by / March 1, 2012
Google shows off its driverless vehicle at a press conference at the California state Capitol in Sacramento on March 1. The vehicle uses a variety of technology to navigate and drive itself. Photo by Sarah Rich.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – A newly introduced bill would authorize the California Highway Patrol to develop regulations for safely testing and operating driverless vehicles within the state.

State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, introduced the legislation Thursday, March 1, at a press conference on the steps of the state Capitol. Padilla was driven to the event by one of Google’s autonomous vehicles, a Toyota Prius hybrid equipped with a variety of sensors, cameras, radar, computers and other technology that allows the car to drive itself.  

Currently California neither prohibits nor regulates the use of autonomous vehicles on public roads. Google and other companies already are testing in California. If passed, Padilla’s bill, SB 1298, would help fill in this regulatory gray area. SB 1298 also encourages current and future development, testing and operation of autonomous vehicles.

Photo: Google Product Manager Anthony Levandowski (left) and California Sen. Alex Padilla (right) introduce a new bill that would establish regulations for testing and operating driverless vehicles in the state. Photo by Sarah Rich.

“I imagine a lot of people think a self-driving car as science fiction or something out of the Jetsons, but this may not be something that happens for a long time,” Padilla said at the press conference. “But we’re living in an era of Moore’s Law, where every two years we double our computer processing speeds. And what it’s done is it’s allowed us to demonstrate exponential improvements to the areas of advanced technology, including the ability to use technology to make self-driving cars a reality sooner rather than later.”

Google has logged more than 200,000 miles of driverless vehicle testing on the state’s roads, according to company data.  The company has driven a driverless vehicle from San Francisco south to Los Angeles, and over all the bridges in the San Francisco Bay Area, Google Product Manager Anthony Levandowski said at Thursday’s press conference.

Google isn’t the only company building autonomous technology — auto manufacturers like BMW, Audi and Volvo are a few others that have invested in similar research, Padilla said. Google is encouraging auto manufacturers to bring the autonomous technology to California and the rest of the nation.

“I’m really excited about seeing Sen. Padilla’s work on bringing and building a framework for testing and helping enable the groundwork for consumers to have access to this wonderful, new technology,” Levandowski said.

Padilla hopes vehicles like Google’s will be on the road in the near future, despite some observers won’t be publicly available until 2020. Padilla said with interest and investment the vehicles could be rolled out sooner. Google has not yet established what the price of one of its driverless vehicles would be on the open market.

Driving Ahead With the Law

Padilla said laws have been “very reactive to technology over the course of history,” so it’s important for California to keep up with the advancing technology.

Nevada officials claimed the state was the first in the nation to develop regulations regarding autonomous vehicle technology. The state passed a law in July that required the state’s DMV to develop regulations for the use of autonomous vehicles on public roads. Last month the Nevada Legislative Commission of the DMV announced it had approved those regulations. On Thursday, March 1, an application package was made available for companies interested in applying to test autonomous vehicles in Nevada, according to DMV Director Bruce Breslow.

“We see autonomous technology as the future of the automobile,” Breslow told Government Technology last month. “Certainly, within two to five years, there will be autonomous, self-driving cars sold to people in our country. And we look at it as a safety system to avoid crashes, to avoid deaths.”


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Sarah Rich

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. She wrote for for Government Technology magazine from 2010 through 2013.

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