California DMV Bursts Google And Self-Driving Cars’ Bubble

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On the heels of news about Google possibly taking on Uber with a fleet of self-driving cars, and Ford joining self-driving testers on California roads, and the iPhone hacker working on a self-driving car on his own instead of with Tesla, the DMV’s new draft rules say self-driving cars must — of all things — have a driver behind the wheel.

That’s right. California, which today released long-awaited draft rules that could set the tone for everyone else, says it wants driverless cars to have drivers.

Driverless cars also would have to pass a safety test, and their users would have to undergo special training.

“Given the potential risks associated with deployment of such a new technology, DMV believes that manufacturers need to obtain more experience in testing driverless vehicles on public roads prior to making this technology available to the general public,” the agency said.

Google’s test vehicles do use “safety drivers,” but Google’s Self-Driving Car Project website notes that that’s “for now.” The company — which began autonomous vehicle testing six years ago and has pushed for clarity on regulations — isn’t happy with this development. From a statement emailed to SiliconBeat by spokesman Johnny Luu today:

“In developing vehicles that can take anyone from A to B at the push of a button, we’re hoping to transform mobility for millions of people, whether by reducing the 94 percent of accidents caused by human error or bringing everyday destinations within reach of those who might otherwise be excluded by their inability to drive a car. Safety is our highest priority and primary motivator as we do this. We’re gravely disappointed that California is already writing a ceiling on the potential for fully self-driving cars to help all of us who live here.”

All this seems like a big setback for Google in light of what Bloomberg reported today: that the company will break out its self-driving division as its own company, and that that new company is going to take on Uber by offering rides for hire. Luu did not comment on this report. (Uber is said to be working on self-driving vehicles as well.)

But at least one expert praises the abundance of caution.

“I am pleased to see that the California DMV proposes a requirement that each autonomous vehicle be subjected to a vehicle demonstration test to be conducted by a third-party testing organization,” Michael Sivak, director of Sustainable Worldwide Transportation for the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, told me in an email. In October, his institute published a report titled “Should We Require Licensing Tests and Graduated Licensing for Self-Driving Vehicles?”

And a frequent critic of Google is pleased about the privacy issues the rules address. Manufacturers have to provide written disclosures about the information they collect, and must ask permission if that information isn’t critical for operating the vehicle.

“The privacy regulations are essential,” John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog said in a statement. “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.”

The DMV rules aren’t final. The agency is seeking public comment at workshops on Jan. 28 and Feb. 2, and is expected to finalize the rules sometime in 2016, according to the Associated Press.

Updated above with additional comment and information.

Photo: U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving car project,  at the Google campus in Mountain View in February 2015. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)

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