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No-driver cars: Still testing, laws needed now

2014-03-12 09:56

TOUGH TASK: The Californian State has been tasked to draw up laws for driverless cars while this new technology is still being developed by many automakers. Image: AFP


LOS ANGELES, California - The Sunshine State is trying to do something unusual in this age of rapidly evolving technology — get ahead of a big new development before it goes public.

By the end of 2014 California's Department of Motor Vehicles must have written rules to regulate cars that rely on computers — not a human — to do the driving.

That process began Tuesday (March 12 2014) when the DMV held an initial public hearing in Sacramento to puzzle over how to regulate vehicles that haven't been fully developed yet.

Among the complex questions officials want to unravel:

   • How will the state know the cars are safe?

   • Does a driver need to be behind the wheel?

   • Will automakers mine data from vehicles' computers?

   • Will owners be penalised if a car crashes itself?

Once the stuff of science fiction, driverless cars could be commercially available by decade's end. Under a California law passed in 2012, the DMV must decide by the end of this year how to integrate the cars — often called autonomous on to roads.

That means the draft regulations will be ready byJune, then be altered in response to public comment by the end of the year and finalised by the end of 2014.

Three other states have passed driverless-car laws but those rules mostly focus on testing. California has mandated rules on testing and public operation and the DMV expects within weeks to finalise regulations dictating what companies must do to test the technology on public roads.

Those rules came after Google had already sent its fleet of Toyota Priuses and Lexuses, fitted with an array of sensors that included radar and lasers, hundreds of thousands of kilometres in California.

Major automakers have also tested their own models.

Now the DMV is scrambling to regulate the broader use of the cars. With the federal government apparently years away from developing regulations, California's rules could effectively become the national standard.

Much of the initial discussion Tuesday focused on personal privacy concerns. California law requires autonomous vehicles to log records of operation so the data can be used to reconstruct an accident but John Simpson from the non-profit Consumer Watchdog said at the hearing the cars "must not become another way to track us in our daily lives". Simpson called out Google, saying the Internet giant rebuffed attempts to add privacy guarantees when it pushed the 2012 legislation mandating rules on testing and public operation.

Seated across from Simpson at the hearing's head tables was a representative from Google, who offered no comment on the data privacy issue.

Discussion also touched on how to know a car was safe, and whether an owner would know how to operate it correctly. Ron Medford, Google's director of safety for its "self-driving car" project, suggested that automakers should be able to self-certify their vehicles. He cautioned that complications would set in quickly if the state tried to assume that role.

When the cars finally hit the road the human aboard will be expected to take control in an instant if the computer failes. Unlike current technology — which can help park a car or keep it in its freeway lane — owners might eventually be able to read, daydream or even sleep while the car does the work.


Responding to a question received over Twitter, DMV attorney Brian Soublet acknowledged that the department was still grappling with the most fundamental question of whether a person would need to be in the driving seat.

Maybe not, by the time the technology is safe and reliable, he said.

Soublet asked who would ensure that owners knew how to use the new technology. Should the onus be on dealers, manufacturers, owners?

Representatives of automakers suggested they shouldn't be asked to guarantee the capability of owners. John Tillman of Mercedes-Benz said the DMV could test owners on basics such as starting and stopping the automated driving function.

Automakers' representatives were also worried that other states might pass regulations substantially different to those of California, creating the kind of patchwork rules that businesses hate.

Bernard Soriano, a deputy director at the DMV, said other states had been in touch and were following California's rule-making process closely.

Other discussion focused on how vulnerable cars would become to hackers, who might take control of a vehicle in which they were not riding. Industry representatives said that while that was a concern they would vigilantly guard against such vulnerability because it would be disastrous.

What Wheels24 wonders.... Assuming the no-driver car was still under warranty and serviced to specification who would be liable if the car failed while the driver was sleeping? Also, what would happen to insurance premiums? Who would be responsible for speeding fines?

What laws would YOU want if no-driver cars were introduced to SA? Email us and we'll publish your thoughts or use the Readers' Comments section below...

Read more on:    california  |  los angeles  |  new models  |  law

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