DMV Wants Driverless Cars To Have Licensed Drivers

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Whoa, Nelly, the California Department of Motor Vehicles told self-driving car developers Wednesday. It’s not yet time to dispense with licensed drivers and unleash driverless cars on public roads, the agency said.

The DMV took a cautious approach in its precedent-setting draft regulations that could govern the release of self-driving cars to the public. They would require the vehicles to have steering wheels and licensed drivers behind those wheels, ready to take control in case technology fails.

“We just aren’t ready to take that driver out yet,” said Jessica Gonzalez, a DMV spokeswoman. “No data we have shows (performance with) no driver in the vehicle.”

The proposed rules would also prohibit the sales of self-driving cars, which manufacturers would only be able to lease out or give to users. The DMV would also require manufacturers to apply for three-year permits allowing public operation of those cars along with monthly performance reports that could lead to the permits being revoked.

The rules, a year in the making and a year behind schedule, aren’t final, and are certain to be contested by developers who believe they’re too conservative. Google officials, who are testing the cars on the streets of Mountain View, have said they would be ready for the public within five years.

In a statement, Google expressed dismay with the DMV’s draft regulations, particularly the requirement that driverless cars have a driver.

“Safety is our highest priority and primary motivator,” Google’s statement said. “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.”

Google officials, clearly frustrated, said they were “hoping to transform mobility” by making car travel safer — they note that 94 percent of vehicle collisions are caused by driver error — and allowing people unable to drive to get around in cars.

TechNet, a technology industry advocacy group, echoed Google’s concerns, saying they hindered the development of self-driving cars.

“We should be encouraging the development of these technologies, rather than hindering their growth,” John Doherty, the group’s vice president of state policy and politics said in a statement. “This potential will only be reached if California looks forward rather than back. Unfortunately, the regulatory proposal released today takes a step backward from the existing system.”

A consumer watchdog group, however, lauded the DMV guidelines.

“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 M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project director.

The DMV will hold hearings on the proposed rules in January and February, and will consider making changes before they’re made final, Gonzalez said.

“We want to have an open dialogue with manufacturers, with regulators, with the public,” she said. “This won’t be a go-to-the-microphone-and-make-a-statement thing. We want to have a conversation.”

Steven Shladover, a research engineer with a UC Berkeley advanced transportation program, said the DMV faces a difficult challenge in establishing the nation’s first real regulations for self-driving cars — something it was required to do by legislation in 2012.

“The continual challenge is finding the balance between protecting public safety and encouraging innovations that could improve the transportation system,” he said. “There certainly have to be provisions to protect the public about something that could be put out on the road.”

Michael Cabanatuan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @ctuan

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