Consumer Group: Self-Driving Cars Unsafe Without Steering Wheels

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It will be years before driverless cars are released to the public, but one consumer activist group is already taking aim at Google, one company that is blazing the technological trail.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles is leading the country, and the rest of the world, in writing regulations that will determine what kind of oversight it places on self-driving cars. The activist group Consumer Watchdog sent a letter to the DMV on Thursday arguing that the lack of a steering wheel on Google’s car prototype is dangerous because the cars cannot navigate roadway hazards such as extreme weather. Humans need to be able to take control at any moment, they argued.

“Driverless cars with no provision for a human takeover… should be banned from California’s highways” until every car on the road is a self-driving car, wrote John Simpson, a director at Consumer Watchdog.

The letter listed a long list of “shortcomings” that include an inability of the cars to detect traffic lights when sunshine or heavy rain interferes with its sensors. It charged that the cars cannot maneuver through unpredictable road conditions or decipher hand gestures by other drivers or police officers.

Simpson said Consumer Watchdog arrived at its conclusions by reading various public studies and news articles. He acknowledged that some of the problems may have been worked out since they were reported, though he he said he hadn't seen evidence of it.

Google did not provide an official response, but the company has said in the past that it will not release its driverless cars to the public until it determines they are completely safe.

Last month, I rode in a Google self-driving car at the company's invitation. While that ride across city streets was not flawless, Google employees said the car is being designed to safely navigate every possible roadway encounter. But the system isn't complete, and it will be years before the vehicles are made publicly available.

Google has repeatedly said it does not want the DMV to regulate its cars more strictly than it does conventional car manufacturers. Alternately, it wants to help craft a universal safety analysis that all manufacturers of so-called autonomous vehicles would have to follow.

This is not the first time Consumer Watchdog has crossed swords with Google. The group has also tangled with the Internet giant on net neutrality and privacy concerns, to name a few issues.

The California DMV was not immediately available for comment. The agency has said it has not yet determined when it will release rules for public use of autonomous cars.

Allen Young covers state legislation, regulation and contracts, as well as economic news, international trade and economic development for the Sacramento Business Journal.

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