DMV Official Candid About Department’s Difficulty With Robot Car Rules

Self-driving car companies need to be more open with California about what they are doing, admitted a top California Department of Motor Vehicles official last week when describing the DMV’s struggle to craft regulations covering the deployment of robot cars on California’s highways.

Volvo, which is actively developing self-driving technology, though not in such a high-profile way as Google, held a conference about robot car issues at the Swedish Embassy in Washington, and according to The Washington Post, Brian Soublet, deputy director of the California DMV, was candid about what the department is facing:

“We didn’t ask to be in the business of regulating a technology. We haven’t been in that business before. It was forced upon us by legislation. Someone thought it was a great idea to introduce legislation in several states that required people to develop regulations that covered the safety of vehicles.
“We’re not an agency that is filled by automotive engineers. We’re not an agency that is filled with automotive safety experts, and so how do we go about doing that?”

Under SB 1298 authored by then Sen. Alex Padilla, the DMV was supposed to have regulations covering both testing and deployment of robot cars in place by Jan.1, 2015.  The testing regulations, which importantly require a driver be behind the wheel capable of taking control, went into effect last September.

But the department blew the deadline for general use rules and, according to a spokesperson, has no timeline yet for when they will be finished.  According to the Post, Soublet says a big part of the problem is getting the robot car manufactures to be transparent and define the point at which they are confident their robot vehicles are safe to operate. The Post’s Matt McFarland wrote:

“When I ask that roomful of manufacturer representatives, what’s that point so that we can maybe use that to co-opt into our regulations, well, it’s a trade secret,” Soublet said. “We can’t tell you, our competitors will know. We don’t want the public to know. So we have to get to the point where for the public to be satisfied — they’re looking to us — so [manufacturers are] going to have to be open to us.”

Given the lack of candor by the companies who are using our public highways as their private corporate laboratories it’s imperative the DMV not give up the fight.  It’s more important to get the regulations for general use of robot cars right than to rush them into print. And there are signs that the DMV does understand the importance of being transparent.  After prompting from Consumer Watchdog, the Department has started posting all required robot car crash reports online.  It plans to issue a news release  when a new one is posted — there surely will be more.

There is information in addition to the crash reports that will soon be available that might help craft rules for general use of autonomous vehicles.  Under the testing rules, the companies — there are now 10 approved — must file reports explaining every time the robot technology had to be overridden by the human driver and why.  The reports will cover a period from last September through November and are due Jan. 1.  What’s in those reports should reveal much about the technology and help inform smart rulemaking.

And here’s another idea for how the DMV can get more information. Back in May 2013 the National Highway and Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued its Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles.  Here is a key recommendation to states enacting regulations to cover robot car testing:

D--Ensure that Self-Driving Test Vehicles Record Information about the Status of the Automated Control Technologies in the Event of a Crash or Loss of Vehicle Control
• Self-driving test vehicles should record data from the vehicle’s sensors, including sensors monitoring and diagnosing the performance of the automated vehicle technologies, in the event of a crash, or other significant loss of vehicle control. In addition to recording all the information from the sensors for the vehicle’s automated technologies, the recording should note whether the automated technology system was in control of the vehicle at the time of the crash.
• Any regulation that allows for the operation of self-driving vehicles for testing purposes should also consider ensuring that the vehicle owner make available to the state all data recorded by the vehicle’s event data recorder in the event of a crash.

Right now the DMV testing rules only require that reports of robot car crashes be filed within 10 days of the incident.  Worse, they rely completely on the testing company’s account of what happened.

That’s why Consumer Watchdog (sponsor of Capitol Watchdog) has filed a petition with the DMV seeking a rulemaking to amend the testing regulations to require police to investigate any robot car crashes and that copies of video and technical data related to a crash be turned over to the department.  Turning over the data is exactly what the experts at NHTSA recommended and California’s regulations should be amended to require it.

It’s difficult to to regulate rapidly developing technology, but when Californians' safety is at stake it’s imperative that it be done. Transparency at the DMV, which seems to be where the department is headed, is an important step. Standing up to the tech giants and taking advice from experts like those at NHTSA is also essential.

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