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In Motoring, Change is Afoot

In December 2015, the California Department of Motor Vehicles [DMV] published a draft regulatory scheme for the self-driving car.  Late last week it held a hearing at California State University, Sacramento to obtain feedback on this draft from “advocates and skeptics with strong opinions.”  The scheme aims to “clear the road for public access to the technology” once prototype testing—underway now for over a year— is concluded.

Many people may take a skeptical view of the early implementation of this futuristic plan, but we hear that at least a dozen companies are working on the technology and Google Inc., a leader in this initiative, has said: “A model could be ready for limited use sooner than the public realizes.”  Likewise, there are reported government announcements supporting the concept of the self-driving car for public use “sooner than later.”

California’s draft regulatory scheme aims to protect public safety without inhibiting the maturation of the technology.  Media reports say the proposed regulatory scheme begins with an independent certifier verifying a manufacturer’s assurances that its self-driving cars are safe.  Once this verification is received, the manufacturer would receive a three-year permit.  During this three-year period, a consumer would lease the car and the manufacturer would be required to monitor how safely ‘they’ are driving and, in turn, report these results to the state.

Manufacturers would also be required to provide driver training, and drivers, in turn, would be required to provide proof of the same by special certification on their driver’s license.  Self-driving cars would be equipped with steering wheels in case of the failure of onboard computers or sensors including radar, lasers, and cameras.  The specially certified driver would need to sit in the driver’s seat prepared to assume control at all times. …And if the self-driving car breaks the law, the driver would remain responsible.

Google’s summary response—not surprisingly it was the media focus—was that the DMV’s ‘cautious’ approach will “stymie the technology.”  Given its belief in human error as the “biggest risk in driving,” Google wants no steering wheel or pedals thereby minimizing the driver’s ability to resume control.  Google points out that in testing so far the collisions involving its cars have been minor, and all caused by other drivers.

Google also pushed back against the need for independent safety verification advocating for manufacturer self-certification, the traditional standard.  And reports say Google went so far as to say that if California’s final regulations closely reflect this draft, it will focus deployment of cars without steering wheels elsewhere, “possibly in Texas, where it began testing prototypes last summer.”

Proponents of the self-driving car emphasized the advantages of the technology and hence the need for regulatory support, not over-reach.  There are journalistic reports about the potential beneficiaries the of the self-driving concept, such as a blind mother who uses public transit to take her daughter to preschool, who described her ride in a Google car as “awesome” and asked the hearing to “please [not] leave [her] family out in the waiting room.”  However, a spokesman for the hearing panel in this regard said: “The agency appreciated the potential benefits for the disabled, but its firm focus has to be on the safety of all the motoring public.”

Anyway, in motoring, change is afoot.

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