California on Wednesday unveiled proposed regulations for autonomous cars, a long-awaited step for car companies seeking guidance before eventually selling them to consumers.
The proposed rules hold motorists responsible for obeying traffic laws, regardless of whether they are controlling a car's movements. Deciding how much to hold computers responsible for accidents and other missteps has been at the center of burgeoning debates over how to regulate driverless cars.
California's proposed regulations would require consumers to get a special state-issued driver's certificate after receiving training from a car company on how to use a driverless vehicle. Autonomous cars would also have to pass a test administered by a third party before being sold. Auto makers would only be allowed to lease driverless cars, as opposed to selling them outright.
The draft rules pose a potential problem for Alphabet Inc. and its emerging self-driving car business. They require a driver behind the wheel, capable of taking control of the vehicle.
The latest prototypes the company is testing in California and Austin, Texas, have no steering wheel or pedals. In California, it has had to put temporary controls in the vehicles because the state already has testing rules that require human test drivers to be able to take control. The draft regulations released Wednesday cover the public's use of self-driving cars in the state, rather than tests.
Ron Medford, director of safety at Alphabet's self-driving car unit, passed questions about the new rules to a spokesman who said the company is considering the regulations and will respond later.
"Google may be in overdrive in its rush to develop robot cars, but the DMV has admirably served as traffic cop and proposed reasonable limits to protect public safety," said John Simpson, director of the Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project, who is a regular critic of the company.
The state's motor-vehicle department is planning two public feedback sessions on the regulation, the first to be held in late January.
Alphabet has been testing autonomous vehicles in California since 2009. It has a special permit for testing, but that requires a specially-qualified driver sit behind the wheel ready to take over controls.
The technology company has a fleet of vehicles running around the state and earlier this year started testing in Texas, a state that has no regulations. Some states, including Nevada, Michigan and Florida, have similar testing regulations to California's. Other states have decided not to regulate autonomous cars for now.
"Our concern is safety," Brian Soublet, the California Department of Motor Vehicles' chief legal counsel, said in response to a question about whether the regulations might hurt Alphabet's efforts.
"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 in a statement. The agency said it would develop regulations later for driverless cars.
Alphabet officials in the past have questioned why extra regulations are necessary if the vehicles are following existing traffic regulations, and can be demonstrated to do so better than human drivers.
The proposed regulations came after months of study by California'sDepartment of Motor Vehicles. The state's legislature required that the DMV develop regulations for both testing and the deployment of autonomous vehicles. Executives from auto companies have openly said they are concerned about releasing vehicles to consumers before governments give the green light.
Tesla Motors Inc., which offers perhaps the most advanced semiautonomous features available to consumers through its electric vehicles, has said it would only be a few years before fully driverless cars are ready to hit the roads. But Tesla has said regulations–or a lack of them–could hinder widespread use of the technology.
Regulators on other fronts have proposed rules after technology became more prevalent. The Federal Aviation Administration only recently regulated the use of flying drones, years after their widespread use.
Among other proposed rules, California suggests requiring auto makers to submit monthly reports regarding the performance and safety of their autonomous vehicles. The regulations would also require auto makers to disclose information vehicles are collecting and take steps to prevent cyberattacks.
Write to Mike Ramsey at [email protected] and Alistair Barr at [email protected]