DMV Stands Up to Google on Robot Car Rules

It’s not often that state officials stand up to a powerful California corporation like Google but that appears to be exactly what the Department of Motor Vehicles is doing.

Google is frustrated that the DMV hasn’t crafted regulations covering the public use of robot cars on our highways, according to a recent article written by the AP’s Justin Pritchard. There are rules in place covering testing robot cars on the state’s highways. Nine companies in addition to Google are testing autonomous vehicles.

What’s got Google — now officially Alphabet — upset is that rules allowing  the general public’s use of robot cars were supposed to be completed last Jan. 1. However, instead of rushing the regulations, the DMV has been taking a deliberate, thoughtful approach aimed at getting the regulations right.

When regulators stand up to corporate giants like Google, they deserve our support.  That’s why Consumer Watchdog (sponsor of Capitol Watchdog) sent a letter to DMV Commissioner Jean Shiomoto urging the department to continue to rebuff pressure from Google and move at a deliberate pace to ensure regulations covering robot cars actually protect public safety. It said:

“We commend the DMV for its thoughtful and thorough approach, and urge that you continue to act in the public’s interest, rather than succumbing to corporate pressure. It is imperative that the DMV reject the Internet giant’s self-serving lobbying. Quite correctly your department is acting at a deliberate pace to ensure that autonomous vehicle regulations for public use adequately protect our safety. The important thing is getting the regulations right, not rushing them out the door.”

You can expect that draft regulations will be issued in December, likely the week before Christmas.   On Jan 1. companies testing robot cars are required to file “disengagement reports” explaining all times and circumstances when a human driver had to take control of a robot vehicle being tested. Those reports will cover the period from September 2014 through Nov. 30.  Consumer Watchdog is calling on the DMV to make them public. Clearly the reports will provide important information for crafting the final public use robot car regulations.

It’s expected that the DMV will hold a workshop in January to discuss the draft rules.  Taking the input from that session and information from the disengagement reports into account, the DMV is expected to release proposed public use robot car regulations and start a formal public hearing process in the spring.  The final regulations would take effect 180 days after after they are approved.  That means the earliest that you could legally operate a robot car in California would be next fall.

Just as is required in the testing regulations, the public rules should require a steering wheel, brake pedal and a human driver capable of taking over when necessary.

Another factor that must be considered in developing the rules is the way the robot cars interact with human drivers.  Increasingly, including the Google crash report posted on the DMV website this week,  there is mounting evidence that the robot cars don’t behave the way humans expect.

Google may have the pedal to the metal in its mad drive to develop robot cars, but the DMV has admirably served as traffic cop and set reasonable limits that have genuinely protected public safety.  It must continue to do so.

Capitol Watchdog is owned and operated by nonprofit Consumer Watchdog. For more information about Consumer Watchdog visit