To many, the concept of self-driving cars will still seem absurd. In California, however, they are very real. Not only has testing been allowed on its public roads since last year, but the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has now drafted regulations for the public use of autonomous cars.
California issued its first permit for testing an autonomous vehicle on its public roads to Audi in last September. Only this week we reported on its most recent license for testing, awarded to Ford. Now, though, the DMV is looking to set down what will be required in order for members of the public to operate autonomous cars as a matter of course.
The DMV says the "draft regulations are intended to promote the continued development of autonomous vehicle technology in California, while transitioning manufacturers from testing to deployment of self-driving cars." Among the issues that the regulations seek to address are vehicle safety, certification, operator responsibilities, licensing and registration, privacy, and cyber-security
The regulations will not simply be dictated from on high, however, but will be publicly consulted on first. Workshops will be carried out to gather input from industry, consumer and public interest groups, academics and the public.
"The primary focus of the deployment regulations is the safety of autonomous vehicles and the safety of the public who will share the road with these vehicles," says DMV director Jean Shiomoto. "We want to get public input on these draft regulations before we initiate the formal regulatory rule making process."
The DMV has outlined four key facets of the regulations. Firstly, manufacturers must certify that their autonomous cars comply with safety and performance standards and must allow the vehicles to undergo an independent performance verification carried out by a third-party.
If approved, manufacturers will be awarded three-year provisional permits. As part of the licensing, they will be required to report regularly on the performance, safety and usage of their vehicles. The provisional permits are described as a "first step towards the full deployment of autonomous vehicles in California," and the data collected will be used to inform subsequent regulations by the DMV.
With regards to privacy and cyber-security, not only must manufacturers let the DMV know if any information is to be collected other than that required to safely operate their autonomous cars, they must also seek permission to collect the additional information. The vehicles must also be able to detect and respond to cyber-attacks or other unauthorized intrusions, alert the operator and allow for an operator override.
Finally, a licensed driver, or "operator," must be in the vehicle when it is in use and able to take control of it in the event of a problem. Cars designed to be completely driverless, like that being tested by Google, are to be initially excluded from being granted licenses until their safety and performance can be further evaluated and the regulations revised accordingly.
As you would expect, this final point appears not to have gone down well with Google. The New York Times reports that Google spokeswoman Courtney Hohne wrote in an emailed statement: "Safety is our highest priority and primary motivator as we do this. We're gravely disappointed that California is already writing a ceiling on the potential for fully self-driving cars to help all of us who live here."
Google will no doubt take the opportunity to make its opinions known during the consultation period and the regulations may yet be altered before they are set in stone. Even then, of course, there may be opportunities for the regulations to be revised to allow for the roll-out of fully driverless autonomous cars on California's roads. If not, Google may have to consider keeping the steering wheel and controls with which it's been testing its cars for an initial public roll-out.
Two public workshops addressing the draft regulations will take place at California State University in Sacramento on Jan. 28 and at the Junipero Serra Building in LA on Feb. 2.
The full text of the draft regulations can be found on the California DMV website.