California’s New Self-Driving Car Rules Are Great for Texas
California has drafted rules for the public deployment of autonomous cars, finally giving us a look at how regulators will react once self-driving tech is ready to go past the testing phase. The news is not good for anyone looking to let go of the wheel and let the robot do all the work.
The rules, proposed as a draft by the state DMV on Wednesday, lay out a variety of requirements for manufacturers that want to offer autonomous driving to the public. The DMV will host public forums to discuss the regulations, which won’t be finalized before later next year.
The rules seem reasonable at first. To be certified, the car must be tested in a variety of situations by a knowledgeable, independent third party. The customer will get some sort of training, going over how the technology works. The car’s required to carry a data recorder, and the human onboard is responsible for any traffic violations. The manufacturer must pay a $33,000 to $50,000 processing fee, and may have to cover any costs incurred during certification. All the paperwork submitted to the DMV has to be on company letterhead.
You can credit that reasonableness to the proposed rules’ most serious shortcoming: their narrow scope. They’re all about autonomous technology in its most limited form, cars that can handle themselves in limited situations (like highway driving) but need a human at the helm the rest of the time. These rules—which, let’s note, are just a draft—would explicitly ban cars without human drivers, as well as the commercial use of the technology, until further notice.
The rules focus on the cars being cooked up by automakers like Audi, Mercedes, and Tesla. They’ll be sold to individual customers, who can toggle in and out of autonomous mode. Those cars will deliver major safety benefits by cutting down on crashes caused by distracted, drunk, or sleepy drivers. They’ll be comfortable for those drivers who can kick back on long highway drives.
Those upsides represent just a sliver of what autonomous driving can offer. To go beyond fewer crashes and a cushier ride, you need the option to get rid of the human altogether, and to use the vehicles for business purposes. That’s what Google is doing. We think. The company has never said how it plans to roll out its self-driving cars, which it wants to make without a steering wheel or pedals, so the humans inside never take control. But there’s good reason to believe it won’t sell them to individual consumers for use wherever, at least not at first.
The tech giant’s cars are reliant on extremely detailed maps, so sticking to a limited geographic area makes sense. Humans are meddlesome and mortal, so piloting the technology by moving goods makes sense. And Google has no reason to restrict itself to the traditional car ownership model. The natural conclusion is that the driverless cars could be used for a delivery service like Google Express, in some cities (with the added bonus of doing away with troublesome human contractors).
California’s proposed rules would make that kind of program illegal. “We’re gravely disappointed that California is already writing a ceiling on the potential for fully self-driving cars,” Google said in a statement. The rules would bar another appealing use case for autonomous cars: replacing Uber drivers with robots. Any company looking to use autonomous technology for a commercial purpose in the state, like trucking or operating buses, is SOL.
“California’s proposed rules are great news for Texas,” says Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and affiliate scholar at the Center for Internet and Society, who studies self-driving vehicles. In other words, companies like Google will likely go where they’re welcomed. Google’s been testing its cars in Austin, Texas, which welcomes the company’s presence and hasn’t proposed any rules to restrict it.
It’s a funny turn for the Golden State, which has a history of writing de facto rules for the entire auto industry, thanks to its position as the country’s largest market. Its requirement that any automaker operating in the state produce at least some zero-emission vehicles is the reason several automakers are in the electric car business.
California was in a position to lead on autonomous driving, too. It’s home to Silicon Valley and the first state to create a framework for test the technology. But now, “it’s leading in the wrong direction,” says Walker Smith. Google presumably wants to operate its cars in the state, to bring the benefits of its technology—reduced congestion, safer streets, mobility for those who can’t drive—to Mountain View, or San Francisco, or Los Angeles. But it doesn’t have to.