Self-Driving Cars without human babysitters hit the California Road in April

In less than a month, California motorists may be in for a surprise when they notice no one is driving the car next to them. In late February, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) announced that it was eliminating the driverless car test requirement to have a person in the driver’s seat to take over in an emergency.

Fifty companies have a license to test autonomous vehicles (AVs) in California. Of course, companies are still required to be able to operate the vehicle remotely and communicate with law enforcement when things go wrong.

Consumer Watchdog Director John M. Simpson said in a statement that the new rules threaten safety as remote operators try to control these robocars from afar. Sort of like a video game except “real lives are at stake.”

California has required all fifty companies to report yearly on the number of ‘disengagements” or instances when human drivers need to take over the robocar. Google’s Waymo has had the best track record so far. Between December 2016 and November 2017, Waymo’s AVs drove 350,000 miles with about 1 disengagement every 5,600 miles for a total of 63 times.

Accidents between AVs and human propelled vehicles have occurred. Since the accidents are self-reported by companies with no input from the humans of the human propelled vehicles, the reasons for the accidents are skewed. Many of them seem to be rear-enders. Human propelled vehicles hitting the driverless one.

Also, how can you realistically compare roads and equipment one company is testing over another? Could some companies test their AVs on streets that are easy to navigate with little problems without ever venturing on the big tricky arterial roads and busy urban cores? This would indeed skew the findings. And how can a company really compare their test results to real worldview driving done by humans? Companies could inflate their test miles by reducing complexity and situations that might require disengagement. Companies look good on paper which does not really tell us anything about the capability and reliability of that company’s driverless technology.

Another issue with the California AV regulations—what happens to them whenever the Feds finally pass the American Vision for Safer Transportation through the Advancement of Revolutionary Technology or AV Start Act? The U.S. House passed their version of the bill in September but the Senate bill has stalled. Someday, a bill will probably pass in one form or another.

Los Angeles DOT General Manager Seleta Reynolds said told the California Senate Transportation and Housing Committee that the current wording of the bill would preempt any local or state laws with regards to AVs.  She said before the microphone, “Any local or state rules or standards regulating the design, construction, or performance of AV systems with respect to safety, data recording, cybersecurity human-machine interface, crash-worthiness, post-crash behavior, or automation functions would be prohibited.” She added, “The AV Start Act jeopardizes the state’s ability to regulate safety, congestion, and environmental benefits of AVs. Preemption is a feature, not a bug.”

Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety spokesperson Rosemary Shahan said in testimony: “The message from Washington is that we should trust that the auto manufacturers, which have a long history of engaging in widespread illegal activity, concealing safety defects, failing to report fatalities and injuries, and defrauding the public, this time will somehow change their stripes, and ‘voluntarily’ get it right.”  Shahan read from a long list of automaker deceptions perpetrated by Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Subaru, Toyota, Uber and Volkswagen.

Is California really ready to unleash the driverless car without human babysitters on the roads of California? I guess we’ll all find out come April.

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