New DMV Robot Car Rules Prioritize Safety

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has just issued draft rules covering the public use of self-driving robot cars that incorporate a key safety provision long advocated by Consumer Watchdog, sponsor of this website. The draft regulations require robot cars to have a steering wheel and pedals and be occupied by a licensed driver capable of taking control of the vehicle when necessary.

That ought to be a no brainer, but Google, which is essentially using our public streets as its corporate laboratory with 53 robot cars being tested in California and Texas, is already pushing back.  After the draft regulations were announced, Google flack Johnny Luu said the company was “gravely disappointed that California is already writing a ceiling on the potential for fully self-driving to help all of us who live here.”

And, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has also weighed in voicing concern that the “draft regulations may prove too onerous, create road blocks to innovation, and may ultimately drive the development of this promising industry to other states.”  He claims to “look forward to intensified dialogue between the state, manufactures, and the public to improve the regulations.”

The fact is the draft rules are already pretty good. Google and Newsom can count on this: Consumer Watchdog will play an active role in ensuring that the final regulations actually do protect the public. Google may be in overdrive in its rush to develop robot cars, but the DMV is admirably serving as traffic cop and proposed reasonable limits to protect public safety.  In fact the department has struck an the right balance between protecting safety and encouraging innovation.

In addition to the key requirement of a licensed driver capable of taking over the robot car to avert a catastrophe, the draft regulations require a third-party testing organization to conduct  tests to provide an independent performance verification of the vehicle. That is in addition to the manufacturer being required to certify the robot car meets safety and performance standards.

The DMV draft rules also limit deployment of an approved robot car to three years and will require manufacturers to report monthly on the performance, safety, and usage of autonomous vehicles. The robot cars could not be sold, but could be leased.

The draft regulations also address important privacy and cybersecurity protections. Manufacturers must disclose to the operator if information is collected, other than the information needed to safely operate the vehicle. Manufacturers will be required to obtain approval to collect this additional information. Autonomous vehicles will be equipped with self-diagnostic capabilities that detect and respond to cyber-attacks or other unauthorized intrusions, alert the operator, and allow for an operator override.

Good privacy regulations are essential. Robot car technology should be about getting you from point A to B, not about collecting data on everything you did along the way for the company to use however it wants. Back in June at Google’s annual shareholders meeting I asked Google executives if they would pledge to use the data their robot cars gather only to navigate the vehicles. David Drummond, Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer refused.

While draft regulation’s privacy requirement is a good start, it should go farther. The rule should make clear that the manufacturer cannot require an operator to consent to gathering data not needed to navigate the car in order to use the car.

Currently the DMV has regulations in effect that cover testing robot cars. Eleven companies have been approved to test robot cars on California’s highways. They are Volkswagen Group of America, Mercedes Benz, Google, Delphi Automotive, Tesla Motors, Bosch, Nissan, Cruise Automation, BMW, Honda and Ford.  Ford just announced it would begin testing a self-driving car in California starting in January.

In issuing the draft rules Director Jean Shiomoto, says, “We want to get public input on these draft regulations before we initiate the formal regulatory rule making process.”
To accomplish that goal the DMV plans to hold two public workshops early next year to discuss the draft regulations on Jan. 28 in Sacramento and on Feb. 2 in Los Angeles. After the workshops DMV will propose formal regulations probably in late spring.  With public hearings and the required approval process, the final regulations aren’t expected to take affect for at least a year.

Importantly, the proposed regulations settle a nagging question: If the self-driving robot car breaks the law, who gets the ticket? Under the rules it would be the licensed human driver behind the steering wheel capable of taking control when the robot technology fails.

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