Google’s Driverless Car Will Need More Testing, Watchdog Group Warns

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A consumer group wants the California Department of Motor Vehicles to slow Google’s rush to get driverless cars on the road.

Consumer Watchdog said the state’s regulations don’t allow enough time to test the self-driving cars before allowing them on California streets and highways.

“We urge the DMV to follow a sensible and deliberate approach that would require adequate testing and time to analyze the test results,” wrote John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director, in a letter to DMV Director Jean Shiomoto.

The state agency has regulations that take effect Sept. 16 governing the testing of driverless cars on California highways.

The main rules are that the manufacturer must use specially trained test drivers who sit in the driver's seat and can take control of the vehicle, that any accidents or situation where the autonomous technology disengages during operation must be reported to the DMV and that the manufacturer is required to maintain $5 million in insurance or surety bonds.

The DMV said rules governing the public operation of self-driving cars are expected to be adopted by Jan. 1, 2015.

Consumer Watchdog wants to put that off for 18 months. That would allow for at least a full year of testing the self-driving cars under the new regulations and another six months for the DMV and the public to analyze the test results before an autonomous vehicle could be offered to the public.

“We call on the DMV to ensure the safety of the public is put well ahead of the self-serving agendas of the manufactures,” wrote Simpson.

Last month Google said it had designed a gumdrop-shaped, two-seat self-driving car and would build and test 200 of them.

“We've been working toward the goal of vehicles that can shoulder the entire burden of driving,” the company wrote in its blog. “They will take you where you want to go at the push of a button. And that's an important step toward improving road safety and transforming mobility for millions of people.”

Google said it wants to develop self-driving software that will “improve road safety and help people who can't drive.”

The testing program will start later this summer, with a handful of prototypes hitting the roads around Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters.

While the first test cars will have manual controls for the test drivers to override the cars' autonomous driving systems, as required by current California law, the bulk of the fleet will be cars that drive on auto-pilot and have no steering wheel and no gas or brake pedal.

“There would be no way for an occupant to take control in an emergency; occupants would be captives of Google’s technology, completely at the Internet giant’s mercy,” Simpson wrote.

Google has said the cars will be safe. They will have sensors that eliminate blind spots and look in every direction for more than 200 yards. The top speed of the first vehicles will be limited to 25 mph.

“We're going to learn a lot from this experience, and if the technology develops as we hope, we'll work with partners to bring this technology into the world safely,” Google said on its blog.

The small electric cars are being built in Michigan using parts from suppliers to mainstream brands. The electronics and software to control them were assembled in Silicon Valley.

Google isn’t expected to get into the auto business but rather develop technology that automakers might use. Already Volkswagen, Ford, Nissan, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz are testing self-driving technology.

Some of it is already showing up in cars that have radar and other sensing systems that enable automatic cruise control, autonomous braking and assistance staying in driving lanes.

Several automakers say they will have fully autonomous cars on the road by 2020. By 2025, as many as 230,000 of these self-drivers could be sold each year around the world, and that number could swell to 11.8 million a decade later, according to IHS Automotive, an industry research firm.

Follow me on Twitter @LATimesJerry, Facebook and Google+.

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