DMV ponders how to regulate driverless cars

by Gary Richards, San Jose Mercury News

Tom Sawyer of San Jose is more than eager to test a revolutionary change that could be coming to California roads in a few short years — the driverless car.

"Seniors would kill for these vehicles," said Sawyer, 73. "I would be more than happy to trade my slower reflexes and declining peripheral and nighttime vision for an automated chauffeur whose mind doesn’t wander."

He’s not alone. The Department of Motor Vehicles held a workshop Friday in Sacramento to seek public input on possible regulations, and a number of motorists are warming to the idea of the George Jetson age of automated travel. Driverless cars, or autonomous vehicles, are programmed to do all the driving, while the people inside are just along for the ride.

Look officer, I’m texting. No hands needed on wheel. And don’t worry about that car veering toward me in the next lane. My car knows it’s coming and will move out of the way.

Initial comments at the workshop Friday, attended by close to 30 people, lacked specifics. But Google, which has been testing driverless cars for several years in the Bay Area, and automakers were direct on one issue: Don’t stifle us with too many regulations. Meanwhile, safety advocates pleaded for the state to forge ahead cautiously.

"I have some trepidation," said Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability. "There’s an overriding need to go forward with this technology to deal with driver errors, which are so prevalent.

The technology is there.

"But this is going to get a lot of attention. All it takes is one crash."

Auto officials say that once regulations are determined, driverless vehicles could be available to the public by the end of the decade. But numerous issues must be cleared up.

While Google has tested its cars for nearly 400,000 miles with just one reported accident, it must be determined who would be responsible in a crash, the manufacturer or the driver. And regulators have to figure out how much insurance coverage would be required.

And what if an autonomous car fails to detect nearby traffic in a heavy downpour, fog or snow, or zips too fast down a freeway ramp, or blows through a red light? Who is to blame?

"I think we understand that" these issues need resolving, said Brian Soublet, who moderated the event for the DMV, adding that "public safety has to be paramount."

Steven Siko, a safety manager at Chrysler, said California is set to be the leader nationwide in the push for driverless car testing.

"But if we make the rules so restrictive, it’ll be easy for manufacturers to go across the border to Nevada, where they are testing them, or even Florida," he said. "I appreciate that this is a tough spot for the DMV to be in, but the intent of the law is for California to be a leader."

The DMV is heading into unchartered territory. It has considerable experience registering vehicles but, Soublet said, "we don’t have a lot of experience testing vehicles."

The main selling point could be potential popularity of these cars with the public. That may depend on the cost, which no one is yet ready to guess. Or driver attitude. Roughly 9 in 10 crashes are due to driver error.

"A world of driverless cars would be a great thing," said Nick Lacy of Santa Clara. "Traffic would be much more efficient and trouble-free if cars communicated with each other and behaved logically and cooperatively.

"While that behavior is hard for us impatient, emotional, easily distracted humans, it could easily be programmed into automated driving systems."

But Yvonne LaLanne of Walnut Creek was leery.

"As long as the driverless car uses its turn signal, as cars with drivers hardly ever do, I will be happy," she said. "But I think driverless cars will not catch on, at least in our lifetime. Folks want more control and speed than a driverless car would give."