California Is Edging Toward Driverless Cars

Google's fully-automated self-driving vehicle prototype.  (Image:   Google)
Google's fully-automated self-driving vehicle prototype. (Image: Google)

Google is one of 10 companies leading the charge in California toward a new era of transport — driverless cars. Over the last six years, Google’s 25 fully-automated prototype vehicles and 25 Lexus SUVs — outfitted with Google’s self-driving systems — have clocked up more than 1.3 million miles in the U.S.

The Google prototype vehicles are being tested in Mountain View in the San Francisco Bay Area, near the company’s headquarters, while the outfitted Lexus cars are being tested in Austin, Texas. However, the tech giant’s fully-automated prototype’s have suffered a regulatory setback.

A draft autonomous vehicle deployment regulation, issued by the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) on December 16, will not permit any fully-automated vehicles. This blocks Google’s prototype vehicles from being deployed until more regulations are developed.

Google self-driving Lexus RX450h SUV. (Image: Google)

Google self-driving Lexus RX450h SUV. (Image: Google)

Another obstacle holding up Google is that the draft regulations require a specially licensed driver to be in the vehicle at all times. However, Google was aiming toward meeting the demands of people with physical disabilities that currently have tremendous difficulty with transportation.

Google was even considering a ride-for-hire service, according to comments made by Google co-founder Sergey Brin in 2014, when he unveiled the prototype vehicle at the inaugural Code Conference.

The director of Google’s self-driving program, Chris Urmson, described the DMV’s draft guidelines as a “perplexing move” that falls short of allowing the technology to reach its full potential.

Chris Urmson, Director, Google Self-Driving Car Project. (Image: Google)

Chris Urmson, Director, Google Self-Driving Car Project. (Image: Google)

The draft regulations reflect concerns, not only about vehicle safety, but also cybersecurity, and whether fully-automated vehicles are safe from hackers.

Autonomous vehicles, under the draft regulations, will be equipped with self-diagnostic capabilities that can detect and respond to cyber-attacks. The cars will have to be able to alert the operator of such an intrusion, and allow for a fail-proof operator override.

The DMV will issue vehicle manufacturers with a 3-year deployment permit for vehicles so the DMV can collect data to determine the safety of the vehicles in actual road conditions.

So far, testing of the cars has not been carried out in snow and other adverse conditions.

The next stage is garnering public comment on the draft regulations.

California’s DMV indicated that it will consider fully-autonomous vehicles in subsequent regulatory packages.

“While we’re disappointed by this, we will continue to work with the DMV as they seek feedback in the coming months, in the hope that we can recapture the original spirit of the bill,” Urmson from Google wrote in a blog post.

Accident rates higher for driverless cars

A recent study conducted by The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute looked at the accident records of three companies with autonomous car prototypes in California.

The study found that autonomous cars were five times as likely to be involved in a road accident compared with other vehicles.

A key factor behind the accidents is that the driverless cars drive in accordance with the law at all times, and other road users may be unaccustomed to such careful driving.

The cars tend to creep out slowly, and then stop more frequently at intersections, resulting in rear end collisions.

Of the 11 crashes reported while Google’s cars were in autonomous mode since 2012, all 11 occurred at low speeds, and in all cases the autonomous car was not at fault.

Delphi and Audi’s prototype cars were also included in the study, but had traveled only around 3,400 and 550 miles respectively without any crashes.

Self-driving vehicle testing companies approved by the State of California (State of California, 2015a) are:

  • BMW
  • Bosch
  • Cruise Automation
  • Delphi Automotive
  • Google
  • Honda
  • Mercedes Benz
  • Nissan
  • Tesla Motors
  • Volkswagen Group of America (includes Audi)

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