Google Kicks Its Car Fight Upstairs
Hardware ▶ Stymied in California, the company turns to Congress ▶ “If every state is left to go its own way, it would be … impractical”
In the U.S., the federal government oversees car safety, while states handle the drivers. That worked fine until the cars started becoming the drivers. The bellwether legal framework for fully self-driving cars is in the hands of the California Department of Motor Vehicles. The department’s draft rules, released in December, would force autonomous cars to look a lot more like today’s models than the podlike designs Google and others are testing. The state wants to keep the steering wheel, brake pedals, and a licensed driver, among other things.
To head off California, Google has shifted its lobbying to the federal stage, asking Congress to put regulatory authority firmly in the hands of the U.S. Department of Transportation. “Congressional action is needed,” Chris Urmson, director of Google’s selfdriving car project, told the Senate Commerce Committee on March 15. “If every state is left to go its own way, it would be extremely impractical to operate an autonomous vehicle across state boundaries.”
Google has reason to expect its cars will find favor with federal regulators, which blame humans for 94 percent of auto crashes. At this year’s Detroit Auto Show, Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said he’d proposed a 10-year, $3.9 billion funding package for self-driving vehicles and that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a Transportation Department agency, would work with states to develop a model policy. NHTSA in February told Google it considers the company’s software a driver.
Without changes, existing federal motor safety standards would require car designs similar to those outlined by the California DMV, according to a March 11 department report. Google worries it would take NHTSA years to finalize rules without a congressionally authorized shortcut. But the senators assembled at the Commerce Committee hearing seemed bullish.