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”

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Technology -

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.

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