California Weighs Self-Driving Car Rules

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California regulators are weighing draft rules for driverless cars that some industry experts worry go further than recently released federal guidelines.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) held a public hearing on Wednesday with members of the auto industry who are pursuing autonomous vehicles and safety advocates who fear the technology is not ready for prime time.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) unveiled voluntary driverless car guidance last month that includes a 15-point safety assessment that asks automakers to certify how they are addressing various standards such as privacy concerns and ethical issues. 

The flexible approach was designed to strike a balance between safety and innovation while leaving room for the federal guidance to evolve with the emerging technology.

But the California DMV proposal would require manufacturers to submit that federal checklist before testing or deploying automated vehicles in the state, which some industry experts said would defeat the purpose of the federal guidance’s flexible strategy. 

“As written, these certification requirements would effectively codify NHTSA’s voluntary guidance,” said David Strickland, a spokesman for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets and a former NHTSA administrator.

“Mandating compliance is completely counter to NHTSA’s objective in voluntary guidance, is premature, creates unnecessary regulatory confusion, and would impose an unjustified burden on companies currently working to safely reach full-scale commercial deployment of [highly automated vehicles] in a timely manner.” 

Marc Scribner, a research fellow for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, said the state proposal would threaten innovation, and he urged Congress to “slap down” California by explicitly preempting states when it comes to the safety performance and testing of self-driving cars.

The guidance already sought to clarify the federal role versus the state role, acknowledging the growing concern over a messy patchwork of state regulations.

The document recommends that states be responsible for licensing human drivers, enacting and enforcing traffic laws, regulating motor insurance and liability, and establishing requirements for autonomous vehicle testing on public roads.

The framework envisions the federal government having primary control over the actual automation software, as well as being responsible for setting safety standards, carrying out enforcement and handling recalls.

Strickland also took issue with California’s proposal requiring driverless vehicles to be equipped with data recorders and that manufacturers to release data captured on those devices within 24 hours of a law enforcement request.

“Requiring that manufacturers allow law enforcement unlimited access to data regarding the operation of a motor vehicle does not comport with consumer expectations of privacy,” Strickland said.

Some safety advocates, on the other hand, worried that the regulations don’t go far enough to keep passengers and pedestrians safe.

Consumer Watchdog testified at the hearing that the checklist is inadequate to protect public safety. The group urged the DMV to prohibit driverless cars on California roads until there are mandatory and enforceable federal standards in place.

“The proposed DMV rules would let robot cars without a driver on our roads if the manufacturer simply answers yes, no or maybe to each point on NHTSA’s 15-point safety checklist,” said Carmen Balber, executive director of Consumer Watchdog. 

“Absolutely no safety performance standards are required. We need more than a safety checklist written on toilet paper before we are sure driverless vehicles are safe to operate on public roads in California.

“That’s why we’re calling on the DMV to hold until federal regulators enact enforceable safety standards for driverless cars.”

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