Driverless Cars Get Boost as California Bill Mimics Nevada

Googles Driverless Cars Get Boost
A Google Inc. driverless car. Source: Google Inc. via Bloomberg

A California state senator arrived at a press conference at the Sacramento capitol today in a Google Inc.-modified Toyota Prius that drives itself.

Senator Alex Padilla announced new legislation written with Google’s input at the event, timed to coincide with new regulations allowing the world’s first autonomous vehicles to be road-tested and registered in neighboring Nevada. The bill reflects Mountain View, California-based Google’s latest push to show policymakers that while the cars of the future aren’t yet ready for public use, it’s time for laws to accommodate them.

“I imagine a lot of people think of a self-driving car as science fiction or something out of The Jetsons and something that may not be available for a long time,” Padilla said after climbing out of the black Prius with a Google logo on the side and spinning sensors attached to the roof.

Rapid advancements in technology mean the cars will be a reality for consumers soon and the laws should be ready for them, he said.

“We have introduced this bill recognizing that autonomous technology is coming much sooner, rather than later,” Padilla said.

The bill offered by Padilla, a Pacoima Democrat, would direct the California Highway Patrol to develop regulations like Nevada’s for testing the self-driving vehicles on the state’s roadways and for their future operation by consumers.

‘Building a Framework’

“I’m really excited about seeing Senator Padilla’s work on bringing and building a framework for testing and helping enable the groundwork for consumers to have access to this wonderful new technology,” Google’s product manager, Anthony Levandowski, said at the press conference.

Lawmakers in Hawaii, Oklahoma, Florida and Arizona have also introduced bills to follow Nevada’s lead.

The laws may “provide that boost and regulatory certainty that companies need to develop their products,” said Gary Marchant, director of the Center for the Study of Law, Science and Innovation at Arizona State University in Tempe. Most states don’t specifically prohibit or permit autonomous vehicles, he said.

Major carmakers are working on self-driving prototypes while rolling out semi-autonomous features -- such as parking assistance, lane departure warning systems and adaptive cruise control -- on premium vehicles now. Yet it’s Google’s car that’s attracted the most attention and inspired the regulatory push.

200,000 Miles

Google’s autonomous cars have driven themselves 200,000 miles in California -- across the Golden Gate Bridge, along the Pacific Coast Highway and on Hollywood Boulevard, according to the company.

In August, a Google auto rear-ended another vehicle and caused a five-car accident near the company’s headquarters, according to news reports. Google said at the time that the accident was caused by a human driver who was in control of the test vehicle. Google spokesman Jay Nancarrow said the company’s cars have never been involved in an accident while in self-driving mode.

Liability remains one of the major concerns that might delay commercial use of driverless cars for the public, Marchant said. There are also technical obstacles to overcome, such as evaluating obstructions on the road, said Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow with the Palo Alto, California-based Center for Internet and Society and the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford. And there are concerns about how the cars can be programmed to make value judgments, such as choosing to swerve off the road and crash to avoid hitting someone, Smith said.

‘Cost-Benefit Issues’

“There are tricky cost-benefit issues,” he said. “There are technical barriers to be overcome and non-technical issues.”

Google acknowledges there are still things to be worked out. Nancarrow said the company believes existing product-liability laws can cover the emerging technology and that the cars won’t find themselves facing the same tough choices as human drivers.

“Our cars are designed to avoid the kinds of situations that force people to make last-minute value judgments while driving,” he said.

Google touted the driverless car’s safety record and the potential to reduce auto accidents caused by human error last year when it began working on the Nevada legislation. Nancarrow said Google will probably apply to test in Nevada to examine how the vehicle behaves in different terrain and weather. The cars have had little exposure to snow, for example, he said.

Google Lobbyist

Bruce Breslow, director of Nevada’s Department of Motor Vehicles, said he got a call from a lobbyist working on Google’s behalf just two weeks after taking his post last year. Breslow, 56, agreed to meet with Google engineers in California and try out the technology himself.

The Google vehicles navigate using video cameras, radar sensors, a laser range-finder and detailed maps, according to a Google blog post. After seeing the car in action and asking questions, Breslow was won over. He later helped arrange a 20-mile ride around Carson City, the state capital, for Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval.

“I thought it was amazing technology,” Breslow said. “The car sees better than you do. The car sees a 360-degree panorama. It sees the height of the curb. It sees three cars ahead, three cars behind. It can see beyond a blind spot.”

Nevada Roads

Nevada legislators passed a law in June directing Breslow’s agency to develop regulations for the vehicles. Breslow said he thinks autonomous vehicles will be operating on the state’s roads in three to five years.

The regulations allow any company developing autonomous vehicles to get authorization from the DMV to test them on public roads after they have been tried in various conditions for 10,000 miles on private tracks or elsewhere. The companies must put up a $1 million to $3 million bond, depending on the number of vehicles to be tested, and ensure that there will always be two people in the vehicle to take over operation, if needed.

The cars must have a “black box” to record 30 seconds prior to any impact in an accident. The safety of the vehicles must be certified by the manufacturer or a licensed certification facility before they can be registered by consumers for private operation on the roadways.

‘Thoughtful Framework’

“In Nevada, what they have managed to do is build a thoughtful framework to enable ongoing testing for really any player that meets these requirements,” Google’s Nancarrow said.

Google has talked with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about possible federal rules and worked with lawmakers on legislation in other states, including Florida, Nancarrow said.

Florida state Representative Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, has treated state Attorney General Pam Bondi and House Speaker Dean Cannon to rides in Google’s self-driving cars around Tallahassee, the capital. He said he accelerated up to 70 miles per hour, the speed limit, on Interstate 10 and then took his foot off the pedal and his hands off the wheel.

“I was blown away and just kind of got addicted to the idea,” Brandes said in an interview.

Brandes’s legislation would allow the vehicles to be tested in the state and directs the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to prepare rules and potential laws to regulate the cars for personal use by 2014.

Brandes and other supporters say the self-driving vehicles may increase safety and add capacity to the roadways. There are 30,000 to 40,000 motor-vehicle fatalities every year in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Safety Risk

Some see safety at risk in the laws authorizing driverless cars. The Florida proposal was called “potentially hazardous” by the Tampa Tribune in an editorial, which said the cars should be tested on tracks, not public streets.

California’s Padilla, 38, a mechanical engineer who’s sponsoring the legislation, said testing needs to happen in real-world conditions.

“There is only so much testing and learning you can do in an isolated environment,” he said at the press conference. “It’s not until we expose the technology to real-world conditions that we will learn everything we need to learn before we see the mass deployment of it.”

State laws should provide opportunities to work out how the new technology is regulated, without stifling development or pushing out some new players, Smith said.

“Innovators and companies want to know what the law is, but the law should also be flexible enough to permit the innovation,” he said.

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