At the beginning of the year, efforts to put driverless cars on California’s streets looked like they were careening.
Uber had defied state officials by failing to get permits to test its technology and then the company shipped its cars to Arizona to test them there. After four years of trying, regulators were still trying to write rules for testing cars without anyone in the driver’s seat.
Lawmakers and tech industry representatives worried that California was losing its grip on innovation in a sector primed for growth.
Now, after this year’s release of guidelines from the state Department of Motor Vehicles, the mood has changed. Californians should expect to see driverless cars tested on the state’s roads early next year.
“It’s been very exciting to see such responsiveness,” said Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell), one of many legislators who had been critical of the state’s prior regulatory efforts.
The turnaround in attitudes toward the state’s autonomous vehicle rules comes as dozens of other states and the federal government continue to ramp up their efforts to regulate the technology.
In California, 43 companies, including Apple, Google subsidiary Waymo, Uber, General Motors and lesser-known start-ups are approved for testing under the state’s rules that require a driver to be able to take control of the car at all times. Industry and regulatory officials expect numerous companies to apply for fully driverless permits once the DMV finalizes its rules in 2018 — a big change from warnings that companies might flee the state because regulators weren’t moving fast enough to allow the cars on the road.
“The murmurs of that have subsided because of the action and the movement by the DMV,” said Andrea Deveau, vice president of state politics and policy at industry group TechNet.
Still, major challenges remain for state officials to harmonize their regulations with the concerns of the federal government and local jurisdictions. In the fall, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would expand federal authority over autonomous vehicle operations by giving the federal government full control over the cars’ design and performance, including blocking the ability of states to prohibit testing. The Senate is considering its own autonomous vehicle bill.
Around the same time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released guidelines for state and local government regulators, also pointing to a more robust federal role.
Such federal efforts worry Steve Shladover, a UC Berkeley research engineer who has advised state regulators on autonomous vehicles. He’s concerned that the federal government will constrain how far the state can go in requiring manufacturers to comply with more stringent safety guidelines. As written, California won’t be able to flex its muscle with the auto industry over autonomous vehicles as it has done with emission rules, he said.
“If that sort of prohibition had been in place on the emissions front a number of decades ago, we never would have had the stronger regulations that we do on emissions,” Shladover said.
Local governments have their own interests. After Uber and the DMV engaged in a standoff in December over permitting for driverless cars the company was testing in San Francisco, Assemblyman Phil Ting, a Democrat who represents the city, introduced legislation that would have levied large penalties on companies that put their cars on the road without proper permits. The bill didn’t go anywhere, and Ting said in an interview he’s not sure if he’s going to try again in 2018.
Ting, who says he sees self-driving cars tested every day on San Francisco’s streets, said he remains worried that the state hasn’t given enough authority to local law enforcement if autonomous vehicles violate traffic laws.
“We want to make sure that the police are allowed to do their job,” Ting said.
Similarly, cities and counties want to get more data from the state about autonomous vehicle operation.
Marcel Porras, chief sustainability officer at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, noted the recent approval of a local ballot measure to fund billions of dollars in transit improvements in Los Angeles County. The city needs to know how driverless cars are changing traffic patterns to best use that money, Porras said.
“We have an incredible amount of investment that’s been committed by residents of the county to build out Metro’s infrastructure,” Porras said. “We should be looking at how we should complement that investment, rather than cannibalize it.”
DMV officials said they’ve heard these concerns, and remain committed to requiring the highest safety standards for the technology. The time it’s taken the agency to roll out its regulations shows its willingness to listen and how it will handle new rules as the technology continues to change, they said.
“This isn’t easy. There are a lot of eyes on it,” said Bernard Soriano, the DMV’s deputy director. “We don’t want to be first and have a product that’s not very sound. We want to get this right.”