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Thursday, 20 June 2013 21:33

California Writing New Rules of the Road for Driverless Cars

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law allowing Google’s self-driving vehicles to operate in California.

Now, Sacramento officials are working to come up with a whole new set of rules of the road, the Sacramento Bee recently reported. Several questions need to be addressed: Will blind people be allowed to operate a self-driving car? Can kids drive themselves to soccer practice? Can the vehicles handle all types of weather? And, who is at fault when a robotic car crashes?

The Department of Motor Vehicles is tackling these and other issues in the latest scramble to keep up with technological advances.

“Laws are not able to keep pace with some of the changes taking place in the technology sector,” said Sanjay Varshney, dean of the business school at California State University, Sacramento.

When it comes to self-driving cars, California is trying to move from behind the curve to ahead of it. The technology could be widely available in five years, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said at last year’s signing of Senate Bill 1298.

Brown signed the bill at Google headquarters in Mountain View, CA. The bill allows autonomous vehicles to operate on state roads, but the measure leaves it up to the DMV to work out the details. The process is just getting started, but signs of tension have already emerged between state regulators and carmakers who want wide latitude to test their inventions on California roads, the Bee reported.

Google recently hired a long-time traffic-safety bureaucrat to head its public policy effort on autonomous cars.

Officials from multiple state agencies—including motor vehicles, highway patrol, transportation and insurance—meet regularly to hammer out just how Californians will use autonomous vehicles in their daily lives. They aim to have all the rules in place by the end of next year.

“Our challenge as government agencies is to look several years down the road at where the technology might be. Are our laws ready for the technology that the private sector might introduce?” said Chris Shultz, who sits on the committee drafting the regulations as a deputy director at the Department of Insurance.

New rules for auto insurance will be necessary, he said, because under current law, rates are determined by drivers’ years of experience and the number of miles they drive per year.

“Autonomous vehicles raise an interesting issue because (eventually) there might not even be a licensed driver in the vehicle,” he said.

That possibility is still several years out. The rules state officials are making now anticipate that a person will operate the car. First they’ll craft rules for carmakers testing autonomous technology, and second, rules for the public to operate the cars.

Officials have not yet determined what criteria those people would have to meet, in terms of age, vision or driving skill. Bernard Soriano, a deputy director with the DMV, said California may require a special license for operators of driverless cars.

Google made a splash last year with a video of a man who is legally blind behind the wheel of an autonomous car. The car pulls out of the driveway, makes several turns as it goes through town and stops a couple times for the man to pick up his dry cleaning and some tacos. He says on the video that the self-driving car gives him a new level of independence.

“We organized the test as a technical experiment last year, but we do think it’s a promising look at what autonomous technology might one day deliver, if the right safety standards can be met,” said Google spokesman Jay Nancarrow.

Several car manufacturers are working on developing autonomous driving technology too. Industry representatives say they need to test the technology in all kinds of conditions.

Liability remains a huge area of unanswered questions.

Google and Chrysler argue that they have a business incentive to make sure their products are safe before putting them out to market, and that the state should allow them to determine themselves when the cars are ready for the public.

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