“We’re gravely disappointed that California is already writing a ceiling on the potential for fully self-driving cars,” Google said in a statement. “Safety is our highest priority and primary motivator as we do this.”
The rules should be less of a concern for companies pursuing a more incremental approach to the technology. The DMV believes that manufacturers need to obtain more experience in testing fully self-driving vehicles on public roads, and is calling for more data from companies so that it can better determine if the cars are safe.
“We’re on the cusp of societal change with regard to transportation,” said Bernard Soriano, the deputy director of the California DMV. “While it is exciting, it is also something very serious that we need to ensure we get right.”
The draft rules are designed to let manufacturers transition from testing to deployment. Eleven companies, including Ford, Google, Tesla and Honda, have permits to test in California. The rules apply to a specific slice of autonomous driving — more advanced than Tesla’s autopilot system — but less sophisticated than the Google car that has neither a steering wheel nor pedals.
Also, manufacturers could operate the autonomous vehicles or lease them to the public, but not sell them.
For now the DMV is targeting cars in which someone is present behind the wheel, but the driver can remove his hands from the wheel, feet from the pedals and eyes from the road while still being able to take back over if needed. We’ve seen recent examples of such vehicles from Nissan and Volvo. The DMV says fully autonomous vehicles will be addressed down the road.
The DMV suggests that a third-party organization test the vehicles to verify manufacturer claims that its vehicles meet safety and performance requirements. The DMV had the experience of testing whether humans are capable of driving safely enough, but it lacks experience in determining that a robot can drive safely.
The DMV’s suggested rules also call for a licensed driver to be present in the vehicle at all times. The licensed driver would need to have an autonomous vehicle operator certificate issued by the California DMV. This driver must be capable of taking over control immediately if the technology fails or there is an emergency. The operator of the vehicle will also be responsible for any traffic violations.
Manufacturers will be approved for three-year permits and will have to make regular reports on their vehicles’ safety, performance and usage.
“The technology is developing, and what we think is necessary for safety in December of 2015 may not be the same thing that we think is necessary for safety in December of 2017,” said Brian Soublet, deputy director of the California DMV. “As we have greater assurances that vehicles can do more in a safe manner, this is probably a process that’s going to be changing over the next few years.”
The draft rules also stress privacy, requiring manufacturers to disclose any information collected by the vehicles that is not necessary for safe operation of the vehicle. Autonomous vehicles could be a data gold mine, giving companies insights into the movements of individuals, which could be lucrative for personalizing advertisements or other services.
The DMV says it wants public input on its draft regulations before starting the formal rule-making process and will hold a workshop in January and one in February.
Given the nature of the rule-making process it appears likely to drag on for some time, which should frustrate companies pushing to roll out autonomous technology. Once the proposed rules are finalized, there will be a 45-day comment period and more public hearings. The DMV will then review and finalize the rules. Then California’s Office of Administrative Law must sign off on the laws, which takes 45 days. The rules then can’t take effect for another 120 days, according to the 2012 statute that required the DMV to come up with rules governing the deployment of autonomous vehicles.