Busi­ness: New rules for self-driv­ing cars.

Au­ton­o­mous cars with­out backup driv­ers could come to state roads be­fore June

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Ethan Baron ebaron@ba­yare­anews­group.com

Fully au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles — with­out backup driv­ers — could be on Cal­i­for­nia pub­lic roads by June or ear­lier, the state’s Depart­ment of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles said Wed­nes­day as it un­veiled a new ver­sion of pro­posed rules for self-driv­ing cars.

The draft reg­u­la­tions add a re­quire­ment for com­pa­nies test­ing self-driv­ing cars to no­tify lo­cal au­thor­i­ties about where and when the test­ing will oc­cur, but firms need not ask for per­mis­sion, the DMV said in a con­fer­ence call.

“Cal­i­for­nia is go­ing to con­tinue to play a very im­por­tant role in au­to­mated driv­ing,” said Stan­ford Univer­sity re­searcher Bryant Walker Smith, who stud­ies au­ton­o­mous-ve­hi­cle de­vel­op­ment. “There is such a con­cen­tra­tion of tal­ent and money and mar­ket for th­ese tech­nolo­gies.”

With tech com­pa­nies and car mak­ers push­ing hard to com­mer­cial­ize self-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy, fully au­ton­o­mous cars will prob­a­bly be in use for ride-shar­ing and par­cel de­liv­ery within 18 months, said Peter Sweat­man, prin­ci­pal at trans­porta­tion con­sul­tancy Cavita. If those lim­ited early roll­outs are suc­cess­ful, the ve­hi­cles will be all over pub­lic roads by 2025, Sweat­man pre­dicted.

“In some ways that might sound a long way away but in many ways it’s not,” Sweat­man said. “There’s an enor­mous trans­porta­tion sys­tem out there. What we’re talk­ing about is a ma­jor change to a huge sys­tem.”

Forty-two com­pa­nies are al­ready test­ing 285 au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles with backup driv­ers on Cal­i­for­nia roads, ac­cord­ing to the DMV. Cur­rent Cal­i­for­nia rules re­quire a hu­man driver as backup on pub­lic roads.

The first com­pletely driverless cars to de­but on Cal­i­for­nia pub­lic roads will likely be con­fined to ar­eas such as busi­ness cam­puses and retirement com­mu­ni­ties where streets are wide, speed lim­its are low and traf­fic is thin, said Smith, who be­lieves that will start to hap­pen in the next year.

Also un­der the new draft rules for Cal­i­for­nia, firms test­ing au­ton­o­mous vehi-

cles will be re­quired to use a stan­dard­ized tem­plate for re­port­ing “dis­en­gage­ments.” Those oc­cur when a backup driver — many are ex­pected to still be on board — has to take over op­er­a­tion of the ve­hi­cle or if a fully au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle has tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ties and has to move by it­self to a po­si­tion of “min­i­mal risk” and stop.

Whether that re­port­ing will pro­mote safety is un­clear, said Steven Bay­less, a vice-pres­i­dent at In­tel­li­gent Trans­porta­tion So­ci­ety of Amer­ica, an au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“A lot of folks don’t think that’s a very suit­able met­ric for eval­u­at­ing whether a sys­tem is safe or not,” he said. “A safer sys­tem might be one that has more dis­en­gage­ments be­cause it’s more cau­tious.”

Un­der the rules, self­driv­ing ve­hi­cles would have to meet fed­eral safety stan­dards im­posed by the U.S. Na­tional High­way Traf­fic Safety Ad­min­is­tra­tion, which has not pro­duced manda­tory stan­dards spe­cific to au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles.

“Re­spon­si­bil­ity for mo­tor ve­hi­cle safety re­sides at the fed­eral level,” said Brian Sou­blet, the DMV’s chief lawyer.

The fed­eral govern­ment, by of­fer­ing only guide­lines but no rules or manda­tory safety stan­dards spe­cific to self-driv­ing cars, is fail­ing to en­sure pub­lic safety, ad­vo­cacy group Con­sumer Watch­dog said Wed­nes­day.

“The new Cal­i­for­nia DMV pro­posal wrongly re­lies on the fed­eral govern­ment, when there are ab­so­lutely no fed­eral mo­tor ve­hi­cle safety stan­dards ap­ply­ing specif­i­cally to au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy,” said the group’s spokesman John Simp­son.

“Au­tomak­ers can glance at the NHTSA pol­icy and say, ‘That’s nice,’ and then do what­ever they want as they use our roads as pri­vate lab­o­ra­to­ries and threaten high­way safety,” Simp­son said.

The traf­fic safety ad­min­is­tra­tion guide­lines in­vite firms to sub­mit eval­u­a­tions that de­scribe how their ve­hi­cles would op­er­ate, re­spond to emer­gen­cies and tech­ni­cal is­sues, and gen­er­ally keep the pub­lic from harm.

Pro­posed fed­eral leg­is­la­tion mov­ing through the House and Sen­ate may re­quire com­pa­nies to sub­mit those eval­u­a­tions, but wouldn’t give the traf­fic ad­min­is­tra­tion power to act if it dis­ap­proved of an eval­u­a­tion, Stan­ford’s Smith said.

Still, an ex­ist­ing fed­eral re­quire­ment for com­pa­nies to ap­ply for ex­emp­tions if their tech­nol­ogy doesn’t meet fed­eral laws — for ex­am­ple a car with­out a steer­ing wheel — rep­re­sents “a pretty ro­bust reg­u­la­tory func­tion,” Smith said.

Con­gress’s pro­posed Self Drive Act would also bar states from pass­ing laws reg­u­lat­ing the de­sign, construction or per­for­mance of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles and self-driv­ing tech­nol­ogy.

A 15-day pub­lic com­ment pe­riod fol­lows Wed­nes­day’s re­lease of the new draft rules. DMV of­fi­cials said the depart­ment hoped to sub­mit fi­nal reg­u­la­tions by the end of the year, and that they could be ap­proved by June or be­fore. The DMV, not the leg­is­la­ture, would give fi­nal ap­proval.

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