Brian Soublet, deputy director of the California DMV, delivered a frank perspective on the challenge of regulating new innovations. (Courtesy of Volvo)

Handling the latest innovation has long been a challenge for regulators. Technology moves quicker than government, and officials can find themselves ill-positioned to take on their new duties. California’s DMV and the self-driving car appear to be the latest example of this trend, given the candid remarks of a DMV official at a Volvo event at the Swedish Embassy in Washington on Thursday.

“We didn’t ask to be in the business of regulating a technology. We haven’t been in that business before. It was forced upon us by legislation,” said Brian Soublet, deputy director of the California DMV. He added, “Someone thought it was a great idea to introduce legislation in several states that required people to develop regulations that covered the safety of vehicles,” a remark that drew laughter from the crowd.

“We’re not an agency that is filled by automotive engineers,” Soublet said. “We’re not an agency that is filled with automotive safety experts, and so how do we go about doing that?”

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The California DMV is well-versed in giving licenses to 16-year-old kids. Figuring out the algorithms and lines of software code behind a self-driving car is a different challenge.

“With drivers we have a follow-up program. If you do something wrong, the courts will report it to us, we can take an action on your driver’s license. We can tell you to stop driving. But once you start dealing with a vehicle that costs someone $40,000-$50,000, it becomes different,” Soublet said. “You now have a financial investment in the vehicle. And can I, as a regulator, just say — okay, company, you must stop selling the cars. Or — company, you can’t let the cars operate. You’ll have a universe of people who will have made a financial investment in the vehicles. So we have to get it at the outset, so that we know that it’s safe.”

Soublet said that a big part of the challenge is getting the makers of self-driving technology to be transparent. He has struggled to get manufacturers to define the point at which they feel confident that their vehicles are safe to operate.

“When I ask that roomful of manufacturer representatives, what’s that point so that we can maybe use that to co-opt into our regulations, well, it’s a trade secret,” Soublet said. “We can’t tell you, our competitors will know. We don’t want the public to know. So we have to get to the point where for the public to be satisfied — they’re looking to us — so [manufacturers are] going to have to be open to us.”

Soublet said later that there have been a lot of discussions about third parties looking over data. Outside test tracks, something that he said he doesn’t have the resources to build, could become a factor, such as GoMentum Station.

To educate itself, the California DMV has been holding workshops and developing a close relationship with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a UC Berkeley program for transportation technology.

The California DMV adopted rules for testing autonomous vehicles in May 2014. According to Soublet, 10 manufacturers are legally testing in the state. The DMV missed a deadline for adopting rules for the deployment of such vehicles.