California ready to ditch drivers for truly driverless cars

By the Editorial Board

March 10, 2017 12:02 PM

An Uber self-driving Ford Fusion sits at a traffic light in Pittsburgh. Darrell Sapp TNS
An Uber self-driving Ford Fusion sits at a traffic light in Pittsburgh. Darrell Sapp TNS

For people who thought it would be years before California would have fully autonomous, driverless vehicles operating on its roads, think again.

On Friday, the California Department of Motor Vehicles issued revised regulations that would allow manufacturers to test and sell such cars and SUVs here. As early as 2018, vehicles that don’t require a human being at the wheel could be tooling around our cities, and consumers and companies could be buying them soon after.

It’s a mind-boggling thought.

For many Californians, it will mark the beginning of a brave new world. The promise of fewer traffic accidents. Less gridlock. Lower gas prices and parking fees. No more transportation worries if you’re elderly or disabled.

Even though AAA says three out of four Americans are too “afraid” to ride in driverless cars now, car ownership will eventually move from something personal to something people think of as an Uber-like service.

For others, though, the march down a regulatory path to the eventual commercial deployment of autonomous vehicles sounds like the beginning of the end. With mass adoption will come the replacement of long-haul truckers, plus Lyft and Uber drivers. For cab companies, Merrill Lynch predicts more than 40 percent of all new vehicle sales will be autonomous within two decades. Depressed wages and high unemployment will surely follow.

It’s like “The Jetsons,” but dystopian.

None of this is a done deal yet. The DMV is accepting public comments on its proposed regulations through late April, before possibly updating them a bit and sending a final version to the Office of Administrative Law for approval by the end of the year.

But California regulators are wise to be proactive.

As of yet, no automaker has met the federal safety criteria needed to market a fully autonomous vehicle to consumers. However, 27 companies, from traditional automakers like Ford to tech giants and startups like Tesla, already have permits to test such vehicles in California, as long as drivers are behind the wheel.

Everyone knows the next step is coming.

“We recognize that,” DMV Deputy Director Bernard Soriano told a Sacramento Bee editorial board member, “and now we are putting into place (regulations) that allow that to happen.” California, in other words, will be ready on the regulatory front when the cars are ready.

Meanwhile, Florida and Michigan, along with a handful of other states, have moved quickly to give companies broad powers to test cars without a driver present. California seeks to keep up, but in a sensible way that’s ultimately safe for the public.

To ensure that, the DMV is requiring companies to certify that their autonomous vehicles have been vetted on a closed course or with simulators that can mathematically model real world traffic conditions. And while a licensed driver won’t have to be in the car, he or she will have to be available remotely to take charge if something goes wrong and, if necessary, communicate with police.

Additional restrictions, such as expecting driverless cars to have a steering wheel, gas pedal and brake – barring an exemption from federal regulators – and limiting testing to agreed upon neighborhoods, are sure to draw complaints from boundary-pushing companies like Uber. The Association of Global Automakers has already claimed the state’s new regulations will “stifle innovation.”

Ultimately, though, California is relying on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to keep the public safe. As long as autonomous vehicles meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, they will get a green light from the DMV.

It’s up to the Trump administration then to ensure that the country doesn’t come to regret this experiment in automation. There’s no going back now.