California’s new DMV regulations may kill the state’s robocar lead

18 December 2015

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regulation_google-buggy_car_autonomous_robocar-(1)Be careful what you wish for. Google had previously requested that state regulations on robocars be clarified, to help ensure that their cars were legal. When California’s DMV finally released its proposed regulations yesterday, Google found them quite upsetting.

Needing a driver

The draft operating rules effectively forbid Google’s current plan, making it illegal to operate a vehicle without a licensed and specially certified driver on board who is ready to take control. Google’s research led them to feel that having a transition between a human driver and software is dangerous, and that the right choice is a vehicle with no controls for humans. Most car companies, on the other hand, are attempting to build “co-pilot” or “autopilot” systems in which the human still plays a fundamental role.

The state proposes banning Google-style vehicles for now, and drafting regulations on them in the future. Unfortunately, once something is banned, it is remarkably difficult to un-ban it. That’s because nobody wants to be the regulator or politician who un-bans something that later causes harm that can be blamed on them. And these vehicles will cause harm — just less harm than the people currently driving are doing.

The law forbids unmanned operation, and requires the driver/operator to be “monitoring the safe operation of the vehicle at all times and be capable of taking over immediate control.” This sounds like it certainly forbids sleeping, and might even forbid engrossing activities like reading, working or watching movies.

Special certificate

Drivers will be required to have more than just a licence. They will also be required to have a certificate showing they are trained in operating a robocar. On the surface, that sounds reasonable, especially since hand-off driving has dangers that training could reduce. But in practice, it bring a number of unintended consequences:

  • Rental or even borrowing such vehicles becomes impossible without a lot of preparation and some paperwork by the person trying it out.
  • Out of state renters may face a particular problem as they can’t have California licences. (Interstate law may — bizarrely — let them get by without the certificate while Californians would be subject to this rule.)
  • Car sharing or delivered car services (like my “whistlecar” concept or Mercedes Car2Come) become difficult unless sharers get the certificate.
  • The operator is responsible for all traffic violations. Even though several companies have said they will take responsibility, they can only take financial responsibility, and won’t be able to help you with points on your licence or criminal liability, rare as that is. People will be reluctant to assume that responsibility for things that are the fault of the software in the car they use, as they have little ability to judge that software.

No robotaxis

With no robotaxis or unmanned operation, a large fraction of the public benefits of robocars are blocked. All that’s left is the safety benefit for car owners. This is not a minor thing, but it’s a small a part of the whole game (and active safety systems can attain a fair chunk of it in non-robocars.)

The state says it will write regulations for proper robocars that are able to run unmanned. But it doesn’t say when those will arrive, and unfortunately any promises about that will be dubious and non-binding. The state was very late with these regulations — perfectly understandable since not even vendors know the final form of the technology — and it may well be late again. Unfortunately, there are political incentives for delays, perhaps even with indeterminate delays.

This means vendors will be uncertain. They may know that someday they can operate in California, but they can’t plan for it. With other states and countries around the world chomping at the bit to get vendors to move their operations, it will be difficult for companies to choose California, even though so far most of them have.

People already in California will continue their R&D in California, because it’s expensive to move such things, and Silicon Valley retains its attraction as the high-tech capital of the world. But they will start making plans for first operation outside California, in places that have an assured timetable.

It will be less likely that somebody would move operations to the state because of the uncertainty. Why start a project in California — which in spite of its advantages is also the most expensive place to operate — without knowing when you can deploy there? Companies will deploy close to home if they have the option.

It might be that the car companies whose prime focus is on co-pilot or autopilot systems today may not be bothered by this uncertainty. In fact, it’s good for their simpler early goals because it slows the competition down. But most of them have also announced plans for real self-driving robocars where you can act just like a passenger. Their teams all want to build them. They might enjoy a breather, but in the end, they don’t want these regulations either.

The new regulations also mean that delivery robots like the ones we are making at Starship won’t be able to go on the roads, and will have to stick to the sidewalks. This could block development because the test vehicles will be required to have a human safety driver with a physical steering system. Requiring that driver makes sense for passenger cars, but is impossible for a robot the size of breadbox.

California should — after receiving comment — alter these regulations. They should allow unmanned vehicles that meet appropriate functional safety goals to operate, and they should have a real calendar date when this is going to happen. If they don’t, they won’t be helping to protect Californians. They will take California from being the envy of the world as the place that has attracted robocar development from all around the planet to just another contender. And that won’t just cost jobs, it will delay the deployment in California of a technology that will save the lives of Californians.

I don’t want to pretend that deploying full robocars is without risk. Quite the reverse, people will be hurt. But people are already being hurt by human drivers, and the strategy of taking no risk is the wrong one.

A version of this post originally appeared on

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Brad Templeton, is an EFF board member, Singularity U faculty, a self-driving car consultant, and entrepreneur.
Brad Templeton, is an EFF board member, Singularity U faculty, a self-driving car consultant, and entrepreneur.

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