Driverless Cars Given Green Light To Operate In California
By Tim Bradshaw, FINANCIAL TIMES
February 27, 2018
Safety campaigners warn roads could become a potentially lethal ‘video game’
California has approved broad new rules allowing driverless cars that do not require a human operator to sit behind the wheel, in a long awaited win for Silicon Valley lobbyists.
On Monday, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles was given the green light to allow car manufacturers and tech companies to test and deploy autonomous vehicles without a “natural person” inside the car. Until now, a human had always been present to take over in the event of emergency, a requirement that pushed some Silicon Valley companies to start testing outside their home state.
“This is a major step forward for autonomous technology in California,” said Jean Shiomoto, director of the California DMV.
However, some safety campaigners argue it could turn California’s roads into a potentially lethal “video game”.
The new rules have been in development for more than three years and have been eagerly anticipated by Silicon Valley, where the law has often been seen as holding back technological innovation. Fifty companies, including Alphabet, Uber, Apple, GM, Ford and Toyota are already testing self-driving cars in California.
If manufacturers can show the DMV that their technology is safe and resilient to cyber attacks, local residents could be taking rides in driverless vehicles within a few months. The DMV can start issuing the permits from April 2, even as proposed federal rules governing autonomous vehicles remain stalled in Washington.
For the first time in Silicon Valley neighbourhoods, vehicle designers will be able to deploy cars without a steering wheel, brake or accelerator pedal, as long as they can demonstrate compliance with safety standards.
That marks a change to the DMV’s original proposals from 2015, and is a concession that tech companies have long demanded.m Waymo, formerly Google’s self-driving car project, has argued that it will be safer for passengers and other road users to rely only on computers and sensors than to allow a human driver to take hold of manual controls.
“Waymo has been testing its self-driving technology in California since 2009 and we welcome the release of the final California DMV regulations for driverless testing and deployment,” a spokesman for the Alphabet-owned group said.
For now, humans will not be taken out of the system altogether. Robot cars will require constant supervision as the technology is developed, and any vehicle without a human driver must have a “remote operator” that can take over using a wireless connection or talk to the car’s occupants.
Companies must also provide a “law enforcement interaction plan” explaining how they will respond if their car is pulled over by the police, even if empty.
Proponents of autonomous driving say that computers are better drivers than people, who can be distracted. Self-driving cars will open up new transportation options for the elderly and disabled, advocates say.
However, John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog said that using a remote operator “will be just like playing a video game, except lives will be at stake”.
California is not the first state to permit completely self-driving vehicles. In October, Waymo started testing autonomous cars without a driver in Phoenix, Arizona, and it plans to launch a commercial service there this year. Nevada and Michigan have also allowed fully driverless vehicles, while other states have run localised pilot programmes.
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The development in California is significant because it leads the country in number of companies testing autonomous cars on its highways, ranging from global car manufacturers to small Silicon Valley start-ups.
“We will continue to see a mix of approaches in other states. Many are likely to have far less regulation than California,” said Bryant Walker Smith, assistant professor at the University of South Carolina’s law school, who writes regularly about autonomous driving.
Mr Simpson of Consumer Watchdog said that Californian drivers anxious about sharing a road with robot cars should keep a close eye on the “disengagement reports” that manufacturers must submit every year.
At the most recent count, Waymo’s autonomous driving system disengaged — meaning a human had to step in — once every 5,596 miles. General Motors’ Cruise division had a disengagement every 1,254 miles.
Each autonomous car must have a “data recorder”, similar to a plane’s “black box”, that records information about its sensors and systems for at least 30 seconds before a collision.
A day after the new rules were approved, Ford announced that it was working with food delivery services Domino’s and Postmates in Miami, Florida to investigate how ordinary people respond to receiving their pizza or groceries via self-driving car. Ford ran a similar pilot in Ann Arbor, Michigan last year and has been part of the Californian testing programme since 2015.