California Agencies Tackle Rules of Road for Driverless Cars

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Google's self-driving car had already logged hundreds of thousands of miles on Bay Area roads before Gov. Jerry Brown took a ceremonious spin in an autonomous Prius last year and signed a law allowing the vehicles to operate in California.

Now bureaucrats in state government are playing catch-up, writing a whole new set of rules of the road.

Should a blind man be allowed to operate a self-driving car? Will an 8-year-old be permitted to "drive" herself to school? Should the vehicles roll through all kinds of weather? Who will be at fault when a robotic car crashes?

The Department of Motor Vehicles is tackling these and other issues in government's latest scramble to keep up with technological advances.

"Laws are not able to keep pace with some of the changes taking place in the technology sector," said Sanjay Varshney, dean of the business school at California State University, Sacramento.

Think of cellphones, drones or Google's computerized glasses. All of them were created before some states figured out they wanted to regulate use by the public.

When it comes to self-driving cars, California is trying to move from behind the curve to ahead of it. The technology could be widely available in five years, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said at last year's signing of Senate Bill 1298.

The bill Brown signed at Google headquarters in Mountain View allows autonomous vehicles to operate on state roads, but the measure leaves it up to the DMV to work out the details. The process is just getting started, but signs of tension have already emerged between state regulators and carmakers who want wide latitude to test their inventions on California roads.

One example of Google's work to bridge the gap: It recently hired a longtime traffic-safety bureaucrat to head its public policy effort on autonomous cars.

Officials from multiple state agencies – including motor vehicles, highway patrol, transportation and insurance – meet regularly to hammer out just how Californians will use autonomous vehicles in their daily lives. They aim to to have all the rules in place by the end of next year.

"Our challenge as government agencies is to look several years down the road at where the technology might be. Are our laws ready for the technology that the private sector might introduce?" said Chris Shultz, who sits on the committee drafting the regulations as a deputy director at the Department of Insurance.

"We want to be ready for those products, not say, 'You can't sell those products in California because our laws aren't ready yet,' " he added.

New rules for auto insurance will be necessary, he said, because under current law, rates are determined by drivers' years of experience and the number of miles they drive per year.

"Autonomous vehicles raise an interesting issue because (eventually) there might not even be a licensed driver in the vehicle," he said.

That possibility is still several years out. The rules state officials are making now anticipate that a person will operate the car. First they'll craft rules for carmakers testing autonomous technology, and second, rules for the public to operate the cars.

Officials have not yet determined what criteria those people would have to meet – in terms of age, vision or driving skill. Bernard Soriano, a deputy director with the DMV, said California may require a special license for operators of driverless cars – but he couldn't say whether children or the visually impaired would be eligible.

"Those are all the things we are dealing with now," Soriano said.

Google made a splash last year with a video of a man who is legally blind behind the wheel of an autonomous car. The car pulls out of the driveway, makes several turns as it goes through town and stops a couple times for the man to pick up his dry cleaning and some tacos. He says on the video that the self-driving car gives him a new level of independence.

"We organized the test as a technical experiment last year, but we do think it's a promising look at what autonomous technology might one day deliver, if the right safety standards can be met," said Google spokesman Jay Nancarrow.

Google is not the only company developing autonomous driving technology. Many car manufacturers are working on it too. Some of them attended a DMV meeting last month in West Sacramento, where state officials asked whether it would be safe to allow carmakers to test autonomous vehicles in school zones, or rain, fog or snow.

Industry representatives pushed back, saying they need to test the technology in all kinds of conditions.

"If we make the rules so prescriptive, so you can't do this, you can't do that, there is no sense for ever testing in this situation or that situation, it's easy for manufacturers just to go across the border to Nevada and test there, or Florida, where they also have autonomous vehicle laws," said Ross Good, a Chrysler manager.

"I appreciate the tough spot that DMV is in, but keep in mind that the point of this law was to draw manufacturers here," he said.

Brian Soublet, a DMV lawyer, responded by saying the DMV can't just "put a rubber stamp on something as being safe," and gave the following hypothetical.

"There's often a difficult balance that we, as a regulator, face. You've approved something, it crashed and killed (a) choir on the way to a tsunami relief concert," Soublet said. "Who's responsible for that?"

Liability remains a huge area of unanswered questions.

Google and Chrysler argued at the meeting that they have a business incentive to make sure their products are safe before putting them out to market, and that the state should allow them to determine themselves when the cars are ready for the public.

Safety advocates see it differently.

"Should we just let you decide your car is ready to go over Donner Pass in a snow storm? Or should we require you to … prove to us that your car is ready?" asked Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, in an interview with The Bee. "I would argue that there should be some regulation."

Privacy advocates are likely to get involved soon, too. John M. Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog's privacy project, said he wants to make sure the robotic cars can't hold on to too much personal data about their users.

"You (could) be tracked in real time," Simpson said. "Google would know where you were going, how fast you were going, when you stopped, how long you stopped where. Then the question is, 'What are they going to do with that data?' "

He said users should be able to have the choice of whether their location information is stored by the carmaker or their driving habits are sold to advertisers.

"The only data that's gathered should be what's necessary to navigate the car, and it shouldn't be kept any longer than it takes to do that," Simpson said.

Nancarrow, of Google, said the company is focused on testing its technology and hasn't yet determined how it will get to market. Google could make a device that people can buy to convert a regular car to an autonomous one, or the company could partner with a carmaker to embed its technology in a vehicle.

"At this time, we haven't determined exactly how we would like to get the technology into people's hands," he said.

Because the technology is still in flux, state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, who wrote the law allowing driverless cars on California roads, said it was important not to be overly prescriptive. He said it's better to let DMV rewrite the rules as needed, rather than introduce new legislation every time the technology advances.

"We're not built to be nimble on the law front, so it's been a constant challenge," Padilla said.

Even so, it will likely be hard for state regulators to keep up with the swiftly evolving landscape of driverless cars, said Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis.

"They are doing their best to anticipate every kind of circumstance," Sperling said. "But they're not going to be able to do that perfectly."

Contact Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083 or

[email protected] – Follow her on Twitter @laurelrosenhall.

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