Google Seeks Congressional Shortcut Around CA DMV Safety Regulations for Robot Cars

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has put safety first and has proposed autonomous vehicle regulations that require a human driver behind the steering wheel and brake pedal capable of taking control when necessary.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google doesn’t like that and its robot car project director Chris Urmson told a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday that “Congressional action is needed to keep pace with safety technologies being developed by vehicle manufactures and technology innovators.”

In a bid to go around DMV Urmson testified, “We propose that Congress move swiftly to provide the secretary of transportation with new authority to approve life­saving safety innovations. This new authority would permit the deployment of innovative safety technologies that meet or exceed the level of safety required by existing federal standards, while ensuring a prompt and transparent process.”

In fact Congress will put lives at risk if it rushes to grant self-driving robot cars a shortcut around safety rules to eliminate the requirement that humans be able to intervene.

Rushing new technology to the roads will leave safety by the wayside and put drivers at risk. Federal regulators have a process for writing rules to keep the public safe, and Congress shouldn’t skirt those rules just because tech industry giants like Google ask them to. Speed is not a friend to safety.

A robotics expert who also was a witness at the Commerce Committee hearing testified that self-driving cars are “absolutely not” ready for widespread deployment despite pressure from tech giants like Google.

Missy Cummings, director of Duke University's robotics program, said robot cars can’t handle bad weather including puddles, drizzling rain, sudden downpours and snow. They can’t follow gestures from a traffic cop.

Cummings said she is enthusiastic about research into robot cars, but added, “I am decidedly less optimistic about what I perceive to be a rush to field systems that are absolutely not ready for widespread deployment, and certainly not ready for humans to be completely taken out of the driver's seat.”

Cummings also didn’t think much of Urmson’s boast that its robot cars have driven two million miles “accident free.”

“While I applaud this achievement,” she told the committee, “New York taxi cabs drive two million miles in a day and a half.”

Despite self-serving statements from Google, we’re simply not ready to deploy self-driving cars without the ability of a driver behind the wheel to intervene. Google’s own test results demonstrate the need for a driver who can intervene.  A required report filed with the DMV showed the self-driving robot car technology failed 341 times during the reporting period.  The self-driving technology could not cope and turned over control 272 times, while the test driver felt compelled to intervene 69 times.

And if you need more proof, remember Valentine’s Day.  That’s when a Google robot car crashed into a transit bus. And guess what just happened?  Google received a patent on its self-driving technology that detects school buses.  Does that make you feel any safer?

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