On Wednesday, the State of California unveiled new rules for post-testing deployment of autonomous vehicles on the state’s roads. California’s Silicon Valley is home to many of the companies that have been most active in developing and testing driverless cars, including Google/Alphabet and Tesla Motors, but the proposed rules threaten the state’s status as one of the country’s primary incubators for autonomous vehicle technology.
The proposed rules would require every autonomous vehicle to be occupied by a licensed driver, and state that the driver “will be responsible for all traffic violations that occur while operating the autonomous vehicle,” even if they are not actively driving the car. Drivers are also required to obtain specific autonomous vehicle operator certificates in order to operate a driverless car, following specific training for such a purpose.
In addition to the regulations on liability and licensure, California will require manufacturers to certify vehicle safety and performance standards through testing by third parties. Additionally, vehicles cannot be sold, only leased on three year contracts.
Rules contradict findings of safety research
Representatives from California’s Department of Motor Vehicles say that the proposed regulations are designed to ensure proper safety before driverless cars see widespread deployment. However, industry experts argue that the requirements are in contrast to recommendations put forward from companies, like Google, suggesting that giving drivers control over an autonomous vehicle does more harm than good.
“California’s proposal, while well intentioned, will probably make these cars less safe than they already are,” says Larry Burns, the former vice president for research and development at General Motors and an expert in the field of autonomous cars. “Humans aren’t good at transitioning in and out of control of the vehicle—that’s been seen time and time again in real world testing environments.”
Google—as well as Mercedes—have already stated that they will accept “responsibility and liability” for accidents that occur in their vehicles.
Google, which has already conducted over 1.3 million miles of autonomous vehicle testing on public roads, argues that its cars actually follow traffic regulations better than human drivers. The company’s assertion is based on the fact that Google’s vehicles have been involved in a total of 17 minor collisions throughout this testing period, none of which were the fault of the autonomous vehicle, but rather the fault of human drivers in other vehicles. Google has observed that drivers disengage very quickly from the driving process, once the car assumes some of the tasks of driving.
The challenge when it comes to sharing vehicle control between human and machine is the lag in attention when the human driver needs to respond. Research from the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council finds drivers take approximately 15 seconds to resume control, and up to 40 seconds to stabilize vehicle control.
Furthermore, advocates argue that autonomous vehicle developers have strong incentives to remain highly vigilant when it comes to safety. Accordingly, Google—as well as Mercedes—have already stated that they will accept “responsibility and liability” for accidents that occur in their vehicles. It’s unclear, in such a context, why California’s rule aims to make passive drivers accountable for accidents.
For autonomous vehicles, sooner is better
According to NHTSA, humans are responsible for about 94 percent of accidents that occur on U.S. roads. Current research suggests that autonomous vehicles have the potential to save a vast number of the 33,000 lives lost each year in traffic accidents. “Worldwide, 1.2 million lives are lost in automobile accidents,” Burns adds. “If we can solve this problem one day sooner, we can save 3,000 lives around the globe.”
In addition to improved safety, autonomous vehicles create opportunities to fundamentally change how humans live and work, especially for the very old, the very young, and the disabled. California’s rules undermines many of these value propositions.
“The irony of regulation that threatens to curb the speed of autonomous vehicle development on fallacious safety grounds is that this technology promises to dramatically improve the safety of American roads over the coming decades,” according to Olaf Sakkers, an autonomous vehicles expert with Maniv Mobility, a venture capital firm based in Israel. Maniv is invested in a number of autonomous vehicle technologies.
“The irony of regulation that threatens to curb the speed of autonomous vehicle development on fallacious safety grounds is that this technology promises to dramatically improve the safety of American roads over the coming decades.”
Sakkers continues, “Autonomous vehicles have the potential to allow the elderly to live in their own homes for longer, by providing them a way to move around after they are no longer able to drive. They can also dramatically improve the lives of those with disabilities. However, the California regulation threatens to undermine these benefits by requiring that those who use autonomous vehicles be certified with a conventional driving permit as well as a special permit for the operation of an autonomous vehicle. Similarly, low income Americans who could commute easily and inexpensively in shared autonomous vehicles would be denied this possibility by the cost and complexity of the extra licensure demands.” Importantly, in Sakkers’ view, California’s regulation undermines the primary deployment channel for autonomous vehicles—as an Uber-like on-demand car service, but without a driver.
Significant fuel savings at stake
Benefits of widespread autonomous vehicle deployment is expected to have benefits that extend beyond personal safety and freedom. According to Morgan Stanley research, a “utopian” shift to autonomous vehicles in which they become the new norm would bring about $150 billion per year in fuel savings in the United State alone. That figure is on top of the fuel economy improvements already put into place through 2025. Morgan Stanley expects that removing the human inefficiency of driving could provide an additional 20-to-30 percent improvement, while fuel economy could be improved by an additional 50 percent thanks to lightweighting and improved aerodynamics.
According to Burns, “California is a ZEV state—it’s committed to reducing its fuel consumption through efficient, electric, and hydrogen vehicles. Autonomous vehicles can help reach these goals—with this technology, 90 percent of the trips in the U.S. could be done for 10 percent of the energy cost. Driverless cars also serve as an accelerator for alternative fuel technologies.”
“California is a ZEV state—it’s committed to reducing its fuel consumption through efficient, electric, and hydrogen vehicles. Autonomous vehicles can help reach these goals.”
California already has a number of companies with testing permits for autonomous vehicles in the state. Those companies are Volkswagen Group of America, Mercedes Benz, Google, Delphi Automotive, Tesla Motors, Bosch, Nissan, Cruise Automation, BMW, Honda, and Ford. As part of its proposed regulations, it would also require automakers to submit monthly reports regarding the performance and safety of their autonomous vehicles. The regulations also would require auto makers to disclose information that the vehicles are collecting and take steps to prevent cyberattacks.
Two public hearings will be held on the regulations in January and February of next year.