Google fires back on self-driving car rules

SAN FRANCISCO – Google’s self-driving car chief is adamant that the California Department of Motor Vehicles’ draft proposal on autonomous vehicle rules is misguided and threatens to rob key constituents of the benefits of driverless vehicles, including the blind and infirm.

In a direct response to the DMV’s proposed regulations, which were released Wednesday, Google executive and robotic-car expert Chris Urmson wrote a blog post Thursday on blasting the rules as a step back from progressive 2012 state regulations that allowed for the development of occupant-as-passenger vehicles without a steering wheel or pedals. The new DMV rules, which will be debated twice in 2016 before being voted on, specifically note that such vehicles must have a licensed driver in the car at all times in order to be able to take control in the case of an emergency. Google’s prototype two-person car would in finished form have neither a steering wheel or pedals, thereby not allowing an occupant to take control.

“People are telling us daily that fully self-driving cars are worth a shot,” Urmson wrote. “The status quo on our roads is simply not problem-free,  it has a real cost, not only in productivity and stress, but in lives damaged and destroyed by the mistakes of human drivers. Around the world, 1.2 million people die on the roads each year. In the U.S., 94 percent of crashes are caused by human error.”

So far, the dissent hasn’t only come from Google’s camp. On Thursday, California Secretary of State Alex Padilla lent his support to measures that allow for the rapid progress of self-driving tech.

“Autonomous vehicle technology will prevent accidents and will greatly reduce injuries and fatalities,” said Padilla, who was behind the 2012 bill that established a range of safety standards of autonomous vehicles. “I firmly believe that we have a responsibility to facilitate the deployment of fully autonomous vehicles sooner rather than later. I authored the bill to encourage the development of autonomous vehicle technology because doing so is a moral imperative. This technology will save lives of real people, young and old.”

Also on Thursday, California Lt. Gov Gavin Newsom issued a statement saying that the proposed regulations “may prove too onerous, create road blocks to innovation, and may ultimately drive the development of this promising industry to other states. Although the DMV is already a year behind schedule, I look forward to intensified dialogue between the state, manufacturers, and the public to improve the regulations. We must guard against unreasonably holding back California from doing what it does best, inventing the future.”

In July, Newsom attended an Audi event at Sonoma Raceway that found the politician riding shotgun in a special Audi model that was capable of racing around the track at high speeds without any input from the driver. At the time, Newsom told USA TODAY that it was imperative state leaders encourage the progress of such tech. “A few years ago, it was illegal to test (autonomous cars on open roads),” he said. “The key is flexibility in rule-making. I sense we’ll start unifying those rules as a nation. As for California, we’ve got innovation in our veins and it makes absolute sense to keep working on improving this technology.”

The technology for self-driving cars has been advancing quickly, and is centered around on-board radar and cameras as well as highly detailed onboard maps that combine to tell a car where it is in the world. What has yet to be worked out are the psychological reactions to being driven by a machine, as well as the social ramifications of accidents and potentially deaths that result not from human negligence but rather a computer glitch.

That said, Google’s project leaders like to not only point out the inherent statistical advantage of autonomous cars over human-driven cars, but also note that over the past six years of testing, Google’s cars have driven 1.3 million miles and been in just over a dozen accidents, all the fault of humans in other vehicles.

But beyond the safety argument, Urmson built his brief around anecdotes solicited from a range of citizens who wrote in after being asked to comment on the presence of Google’s self-driving Lexus SUVs and new two-person prototypes currently on the roads of Mountain View, Calif., and Austin, Texas.

“We’ve heard from people with health conditions ranging from vision problems to multiple sclerosis to autism to epilepsy who are frustrated with their dependence on others for even simple errands,” he wrote. “One woman in Southern California who lost her ability to drive 15 years ago tells us, ‘my life has become very expensive, complicated, and restricted’ since she had to start paying drivers and enduring long waits for buses and trains. Multiple veterans have come home from defending our country only to have their return to normal life challenged by their inability to drive themselves around in a car. And the elderly worry about having to give up their keys someday.”

The proposed regulations are meant to  establish the requirements that automakers must meet to “certify that their autonomous vehicle has been successfully tested, meets certain safety requirements, and is ready for the general public to operate on public roads.”

While Google is alone in specifically targeting the development of a fully driverless car, many leading automakers including Audi, Ford and Mercedes-Benz are in hot pursuit of the same technology while in the short run adding driver-assist features that enhance safety to their current models. There will be two public workshops to discuss the new California regulations, one in Sacramento on January 28 and another in Los Angeles on February 2.

Thilo Koslowski, head of Gartner’s automotive practice, says the notion of having autonomous car rules “that fall back on the driver defies the value of having a self-driving car. There certainly has to be a certification of the technology, but the idea of the concept is to ultimately be able to check yourself out of the driving process.”

Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter @marcodellacava.

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