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California Okays Testing of Completely Driverless Vehicles

“Lives will be at stake,” warns consumer group.


February 27, 2018…

Barely a week after Arizona regulators authorized Waymo to begin a drive-sharing service that will depend on completely driverless vehicles, California has given the green light to companies like the Google spinoff to begin operating driverless vehicles on its roads, as well.

But, for the moment at least, the Golden State is only authorizing companies like Google, Uber and General Motors to simply test vehicles that have no backup drivers onboard. It is not clear if or when it will allow them to begin commercial operation.

Proponents say such tests are critical to prove the technology can operate safely and seamlessly on the same roads as human drivers, but not everyone is convinced the time is right. “It will be just like playing a video game, except lives will be at stake, said John Simpson, director of California-based non-profit group Consumer Watchdog.

Silicon Valley has become one of hubs for the development of autonomous technology and the state was one of the first to approve the testing of self-driving vehicles on public roads, despite the concerns raised by groups like Consumer Watchdog. But, until now, those regulations have required that a trained “operator” be seated behind the wheel ready to take over in an emergency.

That has led a number of tech firms and traditional automotive manufacturers to move at least some of their tests out to other, more lenient states like Arizona. Waymo has been running a pilot ride-sharing program in the Phoenix area, and though it has had operators in those vehicles it is getting set to switch to fully driverless models – using specially modified versions of the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid that don’t even have steering wheels or pedals.

Earlier this month, Arizona regulators gave Waymo permission to turn the pilot program into a commercial service, something the Google spinoff is expected to do later this year.

A number of other companies have announced similar intentions. General Motors recently unveiled a modified version of its Chevrolet Bolt EV that has no manual driver controls. The automaker plans to put the first of those vehicles into production sometime in 2019. It has indicated they will be used for ride-sharing services and though specific details have not yet been revealed that could involve both the GM-owned Maven, as well as Lyft, the second-largest U.S. ride-share company. GM is a major Lyft investor.

Ride-sharing services are “driving” the push towards fully driverless vehicles, Gill Pratt, the head of the Toyota Research Institute, the automaker’s autonomous subsidiary, told last year.

Lyft and primary rival Uber have set up their own self-driving research programs. They are betting that by pulling the driver out of the vehicle they can slash the cost of offering a ride from the current average of around $1.40 a mile. The goal is to lower prices to a point where American motorists find it cheaper to use ride-sharing than owning a vehicle of their own.

Even before California approved fully driverless testing about 50 carmakers, ride-sharing services and tech companies had applied for permits to test autonomous vehicles in the state. They’ll now be able to seek the new permits which will go into effect on April 2. The revised program applies only to passenger vehicles, not commercial vehicles or trucks, so Waymo, for one, won’t be able to expand its ride-sharing program into California, at least not at this point.

And even though there won’t need to be a driver onboard, those given the new permits will still need to have a way to monitor the vehicles at all times, and to communicate with any pasengers that might be onboard.

“Safety is our top concern,” said Jean Shiomoto, director of California’s Department of Motor Vehicles Director.

The approval for driverless testing was granted despite concerns by groups like Consumer Watchdog. There has, if anything, been a sharp split developing among safety advocates. Former National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Joan Claybrook, who served under President Jimmy Carter, has also called on state and local regulators to limit the testing of self-driving vehicles on public roads. But Mark Rosekind, who ran NHTSA under President Barack Obama, has been an advocate for bringing the technology to market.

Rosekind is among many who believe that the technology will ultimately eliminate most, if not all, highway crashes, injuries and fatalities.

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