SAN FRANCISCO -- California’s lead in the race to autonomous, self-driving vehicles could come to a grinding halt should the state adopt draft measures announced this week that would all but make Google’s driverless vehicles illegal. Publicized by the state Department of Motor Vehicles Wednesday, the proposed regulations would require individuals licensed to operate autonomous vehicles to be present in these new-age cars at all times. The rules also say these drivers must be able to take control of the vehicles at any time, essentially requiring pedals and a steering wheel.
Those are elements notably missing from the driverless-car prototypes developed by the Google unit of Alphabet Inc. in Mountain View, California. It is wording that has the potential to hamper other major technology players such as Apple Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. that also reportedly have been working on self-driving vehicles. Unsurprisingly, the draft regulations have left Google and other staunch supporters of this technology “perplexed.”
“This maintains the same old status quo and falls short on allowing this technology to reach its full potential while excluding those who need to get around but cannot drive,” said Chris Urmson, the head of Google’s self-driving car initiative. These rules cut out many individuals, such as the elderly or those with disabilities, Urmson argued in a Medium post published Thursday.
And Urmson isn’t alone in his arguments. Many others in the auto and tech industries, as well as leaders in California, have come out against the DMV’s proposals, calling for rules that won’t stifle innovation, or worse, send it elsewhere.
“Autonomous-vehicle technology will continue to advance in spite of DMV regulation, but it may well relocate to states [or nations] that adopt a more flexible and accommodating regulatory structure,” said Michael Cunningham, senior vice president of public policy at the Bay Area Council. “We would stand to lose the economic benefit of having this cutting-edge industry based in California, and we’d fail to secure the full safety, mobility and access benefits that autonomous vehicles could offer.”
It’s a sentiment that was echoed by California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom Thursday. “We must guard against unreasonably holding back California from doing what it does best -- inventing the future,” Newsom said in a statement.
While the proposals constitute a hit on the companies hoping to build the first self-driving vehicles, there are many, including some in the tech world, that welcome regulation that prioritizes keeping consumers safe on the roads.
“While [Google boasts] over a million miles of incident-free driving, they fail to mention that most of the time these cars aren’t driven in the scenarios a consumer would commonly face,” said Sam Pasupalak, CEO of Maluuba, a natural-language processing company in Waterloo, Ontario. “It may be many years, perhaps over a decade, before we see a consumer version of a self-driving car that works in the scenarios Google is proposing [i.e. the driver sitting in the back seat with the self-driving car doing all of the driving].”
Kicking the Bucket Down the Road
The California DMV is still early in its rule-making process. The measures proposed Wednesday will be reviewed at two workshops early next year, when the agency will collect input from the public, manufacturers, industries, consumer groups and “anyone who has a stake with dealing with an autonomous vehicle in any way,” said Jessica Gonzalez, an agency representative.
“Public policy is having to catch up with the rapid innovation happening in California,” said Ratna Amin, transportation policy director at SPUR, formerly known as the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. “We need to all understand each other better across sectors for something like driverless cars to succeed.”
The DMV workshops will be conducted in January and February. Afterward, the agency will take the feedback and potentially alter the rules it formally submits, a lengthy process in and of itself. It could be 2017 before any final guidelines are put in place.
“The most important thing is that this is just the starting point in a longer dialogue that needs to happen,” said Brad Stertz, Audi of America’s corporate communications manager in Washington.
However, some view the DMV’s decision to announce draft rules, rather than a formal proposal, as a way to kick legislation further down the road, allowing players such as Google to continue innovating in California without any government limitations.
“They’re going to hold hearings, and it’s going to be at least a year before anything happens,” said Alan Pisarski, an expert on transportation. “In the meantime, some of this uncertainty [in the autonomous-vehicle sector] will clarify itself.”
The DMV’s proposed regulations on the matter are associated with California Senate Bill 1298, a measure adopted by the state years back that called on the agency to regulate the testing and consumer sales of autonomous-vehicle technology.
Although some, such as Google, viewed this legislation as a progressive measure and a milestone for autonomous vehicles, others have said California acted too early with its legislation, potentially hampering the development of the technology. According to Pisarski:
“When you regulate too soon, you can inhibit the technology. This is always the great fear when the government comes in and makes rules.”
Despite Google hailing this 2012 legislation as recently as Thursday, it is conceivable the original measure could hamper the tech sector. In the legislation, there are sections that say an autonomous vehicle does not include cars that are incapable of being driven by humans, rendering Google’s prototypes illegal.
“People need to start looking at that and realize there’s requirements in there that we had to put in these regulations,” the DMV’s Gonzalez said. If the legislation “mandates something, it is the statute that provides the authority for the regulation, and DMV could not create something that is not consistent with that statute.”
As much as they’d like innovation to continue taking place in California, Google and its allies may have to go back to the California Legislature if they truly want driverless cars to roam the streets and highways of the Golden State.
For now, Google and others are threatening to move their autonomous-vehicle operations from California unless the DMV’s proposed regulations are loosened, but it’s unclear whether these companies would actually follow through on that threat.
“A lot of people who have gone to California to look at it as a test bed are surely going to threaten to head somewhere else,” Pisarski said. “You could certainly see some rivalry here among the states.”
Potential landing spots include Nevada and Texas, two states where legislation has been welcoming of self-driving-vehicle technology. But a bigger fear among those in the auto and tech worlds is that legislation of this technology could result in a checkerboard pattern across the U.S. They’d rather see autonomous vehicles regulated on the federal level.
“Too many states doing too many different things could just end up being a massive mess,” Pisarski said.