California’s Rules on Self-Driving Cars Don’t Matter

Unless, of course, you're Uber or Google.

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The biggest news yet in Self-Driving Cars happened in California today, but you wouldn’t know it from the generic headlines: “California DMV Proposes Ban on ‘Driverless Cars’”, "Driverless cars just took a hit in California,” “California’s Proposed New Rules Could Slam The Brakes on Driverless Cars.”

My favorite one? Google Disappointed by Proposed Restrictions on Driver Cars.

You’d think it’s all over—“it” being this utopian driverless future toward which Google, Uber, Tesla as well as virtually every legacy car manufacturer have already, collectively, invested hundreds of billions of dollars.

Of course, this is absolute nonsense.

What the California DMV actually proposed includes five points that, taken together, may seem onerous. But not only do the rules make perfect sense for public safety, but together they are a de facto gift to legacy car manufacturers, who are falling far behind tech companies and startups making smart land grabs in the early stages of this nascent and potentially planet-changing market.

Here are California’s five new requirements:

1. Third-party testing & certification

Heard of Dieselgate? That happened despite third-party testing. It took fourth-party testing in West Virginia to uncover Volkswagen’s now glaringly obvious malfeasance. Why did VW get away with it for so long? Because deaths caused by emissions are hard to correlate, let alone prove. Guess what won’t be hard to correlate? The first fatal accident in an autonomous car. There’s a feature you want locked down before it goes public. I’m reluctantly optimistic about the coming Autonomotive Singularity, even as a car guy. I can’t wait to see a reduction in traffic and accidents. In fact, I think self-driving cars will be the best thing that ever happened to people who still want to drive themselves—it’ll make the road a hell of a lot safer.

Wait, the government wants third-party testing and certification? Hell, let’s have fourth and fifth-party certification. Would you be comfortable with General Motors self-certifying their cars? Trust me. You, me, everyone should want this.

There is only one downside to third-party testing and certification. “Autonomous Driving” logic and behavior will have to be standardized, and a governmental agency will have to manage all this—almost certainly at a Federal level. This will take time. Can consumers wait? Of course they can. Few people are sold on the idea of self-driving cars. Only a handful of the 210,000,000 licensed drivers have ridden in one. Legacy manufacturers are happy to wait. They’ve been waiting ambivalently for a semi-autonomous Tesla to crash since October, eager to let Tesla take the PR—and legal—hit before releasing their high-end models from the seven-to-30-second autonomous steering restrictions. Musk himself just announced updates curtailing Autopilot’s rougher edges. Third-party testing & certification will reduce the necessity of such rollbacks, to the public’s benefit.

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2. A licensed driver with a special certification must be in the vehicle.

Remember the end of Wall-E? When the shlubs were helpless because their tech failed? What do you think will happen if/when people unqualified to drive are forced to take over? Of course there should be a special certification. After setting the Autonomous Cannonball Run Record this past October in a Tesla, I wish I’d had a special certification. Despite all my driving experience, I found the transitions from human to semi-autonomous driving confusing at times—especially at night and in weather.

Guess what? California already required testers to carry “autonomous” licenses in addition to their drivers’ licenses. Based on what I’ve heard—and I don’t want to name names—any additional certification is a good idea. Several companies have been hiring tightly-NDA’d civilians for their testing. These people aren’t all SCCA license holders. The more knowledgeable the testers, the more effective and rapid the testing, development and deployment of self-driving cars will be.

Actually, what the Cali DMV should really be doing is requiring a special certification for non-autonomous cars. People are terrible drivers.

3. “Drivers” of self-driving cars are responsible for incidents.

Someone didn’t call Volvo or Mercedes-Benz, the only manufacturers to assume liability for accidents under full autonomy, under certain conditions. Of course,
that particular product isn’t available yet, but all manufacturers are going to have to follow Volvo and Daimler’s lead here, or nobody is going to get into a fully autonomous car.

Liability under semi-autonomy? The continuum is so long and segmented here, I completely understand why the Cali DMV erred on the side of caution and delay. But that’s all it is. Sorry, Cali, but this draft reg is half-baked.

4. Carmakers and tech companies must have a 3-year operating permit and submit safety reports.

Google has already been releasing monthly reports on their Self-Driving Car Project. That this should be standard is obvious. The only  reason manufacturers wouldn’t want to do this? Accidents. Transparency at every step of R&D on public roads is something the public deserves. Every one of us sharing the road with autonomous prototypes is an unknowing guinea pig. Anyone who objects to this is a fool. Or worse.

5. All autonomous cars must have a steering wheel and pedals to test on public roads.

This is the big one—or is it? How many (sane) consumers today want a car with no steering wheel or pedals? None. Zero. Nada. That’s doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. It means that before any Wall-E pods hit the market, manufacturers have a lot of education and marketing ahead of them. Years, in fact. Almost every single self-driving prototype on public roads today has a steering wheel and pedals. Why? Because they’re prototypes, and the autonomy might fail. Google, Uber and Faraday are trying to remove steering wheels far, far ahead of the consumer acceptance curve, and have just run smack into the first regulatory hurdle. They’ll cross it, in time, if they show wisdom and patience. The should know by now the public isn’t ready. The Cali DMV represents all of us, even if we don’t live in California, because that’s where the center of autonomous car testing gravity lies. Google’s public “disappointment” smacks of arrogance. The Cali DMV’s draft regulations are modest, and in everyone’s interest. Even Google’s.

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Who suffers?

Anyone testing in California, which currently includes VW, Mercedes, Google, Delphi, Tesla, Bosch, Nissan, Cruise, BMW, Honda and Ford. Guess what? If they want to bypass the Cali DMV, they can continue to test freely in Nevada, Florida, Michigan and the District of Columbia. For companies headquartered in California, this is, at worst, an inconvenience. Something tells me Google can afford it.

Who benefits?

Any car manufacturer yet to invest time or money testing in California.

Who are the real winners and losers?

There is a war coming. A war between mobility and driving. If self-driving cars must retain legacy interior controls, future Mobility vehicles will be tied to legacy interior layouts. Legacy manufacturers, still tied to traditional layouts, are today breathing a tentative sigh of relief.

Google, Faraday and anyone else on the pure Mobility side—all of whom want to put us into shared/subscription/rental/fractionally-owned pods—have gambled big-time on the freedom to redefine not only what cars look like, but what they do, and how they do it. Uber is theoretically in an even bigger pickle, because it stands to gain the most, not only from removing the steering wheel, but by replacing the paid driver with a paying passenger. But that’s another article altogether.

Legacy manufacturers, on the other hand, have been waiting for just such a regulatory event before locking in their plans for a future split between mobility and driving products. They remain focused on incorporating semi-autonomous features into their traditional lineups whilst watching, waiting and teasing us with Mobility concepts like Mercedes’ F015.

Looks like the legacy OEM’s patience (or trepidation) may have paid off, because the Cali DMV just gave them a time-out. How long will it last? We’ll know in January, when the DMV meets again.

Even if the DMV’s proposed regulations evolve into a permanent legal requirement, the march of Autonomy only be slowed. California is but one state in one market, with Western Europe politically and culturally far more likely to adopt laws friendly to self-driving cars. If Google and the like are to have their way, they would be wise not to put the chicken before the self-laying egg. No one at the legacy manufacturers ever believed the path to Autonomy would start by removing the steering wheel. I’m not sure it will end there either.

Why? I’m staunchly pro-choice in the War on Driving. I’m not getting in a pod unless it has a wheel and the seats face forward. I know I’m not alone, and it looks the Cali DMV is backing me up on this one. At least I hope so.

The War on Driving Scorecard: Round 1 Predictions

Mobility/Startups: 0, Legacy Mfrs: 1

Results Announced January 2016

Alex Roy is the author of the LiveDriveRepeat blog and Editor-at-Large for The Drive. Please follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.