California’s Short-Sighted Proposal for Driverless Cars Law

December 18, 2015 by Jennifer A. Diffley

The future comes with heavy regulations and exhausting bureaucracy.

Well-intentioned but ultimately uninformed.

The future as proposed by autonomous car manufacturers was presented as an effortless transportation solution; it was supposed to look like Autopia (with slightly updated designs and functional radios), right down to children being escorted to and from their destinations with only their cars as companions. But there's always a catch, and the proposed California driverless cars law details exactly what that catch could be.

Those champions of efficiency and human empathy at the California DMV released a summary of Senate Bill 1298 two days ago.

The proposal begins by outlining manufacturer safety certifications, which is to be expected: a third party should verify the performance of autonomous cars so that car makers aren't simply releasing self-driving death traps into the wild.

It's the second bulletpoint of the proposal that has been the source of controversy: California is requiring a licensed driver be present when operating an autonomous car.

There is a certain amount of logic to this--after all, if an emergency occurs and the car is no longer able to drive itself, a driver should be able to navigate the car manually and possess an understanding of driving laws. But the DMV is also stipulating that, in addition to a regular driver's license, drivers will need to have an autonomous vehicle operator certificate and undergo specific training. This makes less sense. Self-driving cars are already intuitive; there's not much more to learn. It seems like unnecessary bureaucracy from the governmental department most famous for profiting from unnecessary bureaucracy.

The most sobering downside is that this portion of the proposal dashes the hopes for a self-driving utopia in which many elderly, children, and disabled would have gained independence. 

For instance, paraplegics with sip-n-puff wheelchairs are used to having control over their transportation within short distances. If autonomous mobility vans became a reality, it would extend the limits of freedom to those who have lost power over their physical movement. Beyond those with paralysis, consider the way the law could impact injured veterans, those with vision impairments, people with short or long-term illnesses, epileptics, people with delayed motor control, etc. Autonomous cars could grant freedom to people who currently don't have it, and that's the kind of seachange that truly improves quality of life. 

The reasoning behind mandating a licensed driver be present in a self-driving car is understandable, but it doesn't make it any less of a disappointment, and car makers aren't taking the proposed law well. An expert in autonomous cars, Larry Burns, who used to be VP over research and development at General Motors says, "California’s proposal, while well intentioned, will probably make these cars less safe than they already are. Humans aren’t good at transitioning in and out of control of the vehicle—that’s been seen time and time again in real world testing environments." Allowing drivers to transition to manual mode whenever desired could actually defeat the purpose of the self-driving revolution and result in more accidents.

This hints at another troubling aspect of the proposal: the DMV doesn't really understand the technology it's trying to regulate (and that's clear in the proposal's section on "cyber attacks"). The law may well be proposed by the same people who think the internet is a series of tubes.

The third section of the draft is also a let-down: if passed, manufacturers won't be able to sell autonomous cars to the general public for at least three years. The DMV is requiring that car makers only be allowed to lease the cars and regularly submit data on the car's performance. That means no one--even the extravagantly wealthy--will be owning a self-driving car until at least 2019. 

California wants to exert total control over the deployment of autonomous vehicles, which will result in unnecessary delays for their integration into everyday life. Other states will look to the precedent that California sets and most likely follow in its footsteps (except for Texas, of course). The DMV was put into place to ensure the safety of our roads; the irony is that speeding up the deployment of autonomous cars would be the most surefire way to save lives on those roads. 

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    ronsoy2 December 31, 2015

    I don’t think the law is short sighted at all. They are being careful. The requirement for a licensed driver is for liability, not to take over control. Someone MUST be liable for anyone killed or injured by these vehicles and if nobody but a child is in the car when it runs over a pedestrian then who is liable! I don’t think the manufacturer is going to take responsibility!

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    Stephen Young December 31, 2015

    I will accept self-driving cars the day that politicians are certified honest.  Meanwhile, I will not share the road with either.

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  • evilclem January 04, 2016

    These will be great for CO2 emissions with the car not flooring it off every red light, reduction of deaths due to fatigued drivers being able to sleep without dying and reduction of crashes due to people who just can’t drive.

    Technology is prone to flaws just like anything else, but people are too. Whilst having someone to blame is required, a reduction in deaths due to traffic crashes is nothing but a win.

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