California’s Onerous New Rules On Autonomous Vehicles

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Harsher new rules of the road are proposed as Ford and Kia announce more self-driving vehicle plans

Ford and Kia are the latest automakers announcing moves to further their development of autonomous or self-driving vehicles as California announces draft rules that mandate drivers be alert and ready to take the wheel of self-driving cars on public roads.

California's Department of Motor Vehicles unveiled draft rules Wednesday designed to build in caution for technology that is being developed and deployed faster than many imagined. States like California are preparing for the day when driverless cars graduate from test fleets to consumer purchases.

The DMV can make changes to the rules over the next few months after fielding feedback from an industry not pleased to see shackles on promising new technology designed to make the roads safer. Among the proposed restrictions: the need for a three-year permit during which time a vehicle can only be leased, not sold, and only to specially trained customers with a special licence and the automaker must keep tabs on its safety record.

Sensors, lasers and cameras available on vehicles today enable them to accelerate, brake and steer in reaction to their surroundings. Many vehicles already have advanced safety technologies that assist the driver and offer a taste of the capability the industry now has to remove the driver completely. But it will still be a number of years before all bugs are worked out and there is enough data to satisfy legislators, lawmakers, insurance companies and a nervous driving public.

As the largest car market and home to Silicon Valley, California's rules will set the tone for how driverless vehicles roll out across the country. California was not the first state to allow autonomous vehicles on its roads — Nevada issued the first permits in 2011 — but there are only four states as well as Washington, D.C. that allow these vehicles to use public roads.

Among the rules California is proposing; all cars must have a steering wheel and licensed driver ready to take the wheel. That is not a problem for most automakers who have been taking conventional cars and adding self-driving equipment.

But Google, the first company to get a permit for testing, developed a prototype for a fleet of self-driving cars that did not include a steering wheel or floor pedals. To meet California testing rules, those features were engineered back in. And all early versions of Google self-driving cars used conventional vehicles.

“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, in a release.

Meanwhile, Ford announced it has enrolled in the California Autonomous Vehicle Tester Program and plans to test autonomous Fusion mid-size sedans in California next year on public roads. It represents the culmination of 10 years of research and development for a company that wants to be viewed through the same lens as smaller mobility start-up companies.

To that end, Ford established a Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto in January that will have grown from 15 people to 103 employees by year's end with room to add about 20 more, said Ken Washington, Ford head of research and advanced engineering. Most are from the technology sector.

​“Our Palo Alto team has grown significantly this year, using research and innovation to explore and develop future mobility solutions,” said Ford CEO Mark Fields. “We’re attracting top talent from around the world to join our team in Silicon Valley, including employees from local technology companies and universities who want to make people’s lives better by changing the way the world moves.”

Ford's work in Palo Alto includes a number of projects. Among them is an autonomous vehicle virtual test drive to replicate real-world situations where vehicles interact with pedestrians and have to react to events around them.

Other companies heavily invested in autonomous cars include Google, Tesla, Volkswagen (Audi), BMW, General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Honda and a number of suppliers including Continental, Delphi and Bosch.

Tesla has said it expects to be the first to sell a fully autonomous car.

Toyota has taken the stance that drivers must be always available to take control if needed. The leader in electrified vehicles is also pursuing autonomous vehicle technology.

Kia will use the 2016 CES show on Jan. 5 for the global debut of its dedicated autonomous driving program.

Kia and Hyundai announced plans in November to invest $2 billion by 2018 to hire more engineers and develop its autonomous driving technologies. Kia has said it will have semi-autonomous vehicles in its lineup by 2020 and hopes to have a fully autonomous car for sale by 2030.

In November Daimler Trucks became the first autonomous commercial vehicle to get a Nevada permit to test on public roads.

Contact Alisa Priddle: 313-222-5394 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @AlisaPriddle. Associated Press contributed to this story.

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