California Hits the Brakes on Google’s Driverless Cars

car.jpgBy Yayi Ding

On December 16th, California’s DMV released a set of proposed regulations that could potentially delay or curtail the development of autonomous, driverless cars. Car developers, including Google, Tesla, and BMW, have quickly expressed their disappointment in these legal proposals. Nonetheless, the proposed rules will go through months of comment and review before finalization, and two relevant public consultations will be held in California in early 2016.

Driverless cars have arguably been among the more exciting technological developments in recent memory. Many of us remember the “I, Robot” fantasies of relaxing in your car, taking a nap, or doing your work while the car drives itself – an amazing thought! Well, the R&D efforts of major tech players have since brought these fantasies closer to reality. However, as would be expected with such major breakthroughs, the government has also been vigilant in its regulation and oversight.

In 2012, California Senate Bill 1298 enacted Vehicle Code Section 38750, which provided the legal basis for the California DMV’s current regulations. The proposed regulations involve two parts. The first part aims to establish certain vehicle equipment requirements, performance standards, and the safety certifications necessary to ensure the safe operation of driverless cars on public roads. The second part would require that licensed operators be present inside the vehicle at all times, and be capable of taking control in case there is a technological failure or other emergency.

Most of the criticisms to California’s proposed regulations pertain to its second part requiring that a licensed driver be in control, and to pay as much attention as if he or she were driving a conventional vehicle. The pundits claim that such a rule would defeat the very idea of a “driverless” car, one that should allow occupants to get things done or to simply enjoy the scenery. They also argue that this regulation would delay the testing and deployment of driverless cars, which in the meantime would preclude their important safety advantages. Apparently, driverless cars are programmed to strictly obey all traffic laws, and the few that have been involved in accidents were not at fault, but were actually rear-ended for being too law-abiding and too careful.

On the other hand, supporters of California’s suggested guidelines believe that “the DMV has admirably served as traffic cop and proposed reasonable limits to protect public safety.” The California DMV itself has provided comment, stating that it “believes that manufacturers need to obtain more experience in testing driverless vehicles on public roads prior to making this technology available to the general public.” Finally, the DMV’s chief legal counsel, Brian Soublet, has simply remarked “our concern is safety.” It is interesting to note that both critics and proponents of the proposed regulations cite “safety” as one of their primary concerns.

In sum, on the issue of regulating driverless cars, California has chosen to focus on prevention by anticipating potential issues that could occur, which is arguably the opposite of what often happens in the realm of law and technology, where courts struggle to keep up with rapid innovation. This approach has elicited spirited debate from both sides, which will have an opportunity to continue their discussions face-to-face in two upcoming workshops (in January and February of 2016) to discuss the draft regulations.

In the meantime, the “I, Robot” fantasies continue!

Image source: Google.

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