Business: New rules for self-driving cars.
Autonomous cars without backup drivers could come to state roads before June
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.