Self-Driving Cars Can't Be Driverless Under Proposed State Laws
By Tom Banse
OLYMPIA, Wash. - What if you could just start your car, tell it where you want to go and then sit back and relax until you get there? Well, Google and many automobile manufacturers are hard at work on self-driving "robocars." Now lawmakers in Salem and Olympia are trying to figure out how to update the rules-of-the-road to keep pace with the cars of the future. But auto makers are flashing a stop sign, saying it's too soon for new regulation.
Photo: A Lexus RX450h in Google's driverless car test fleet. Courtesy of Google.
Self-driving vehicles raise all sorts of interesting questions about operator responsibility and safety. Like... what if I want to stretch out in the back seat for a nap and let the auto-pilot take me home?
Sara Gelser: "Our legislation does require that there is driver in the car that is sitting the driver's seat, who is licensed driver."
So sayeth Oregon state Representative Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis). She has proposed a set of standards for self-driving cars.
Sara Gelser: "The standards that we are proposing in this bill would require that there be an override feature on the car. So if there is a problem, that licensed driver that is required to be in the driver's seat could take control of the vehicle."
Hmmm... so that probably means I can't order my robotic car to come from home to get me?
Sara Gelser: "Certainly not in this bill. You couldn't summon an empty car to pick you up from an after-work party."
And who does the state trooper give a ticket to if the self-driving car breaks a traffic law?
Sara Gelser: "One of the issues that we are wrestling with is the liability, which is different from who gets the ticket."
The driver will probably get the ticket, although the bill doesn't say that yet. Gelser and several of her counterparts in Olympia say they want to get a legal framework in place so that Northwest drivers can be among the first to benefit from the new technology when it becomes available.
But by moving now, legislators could be putting themselves on a collision course with major auto makers.
Jessica Lang isa legal counsel for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Lang testified earlier this month in Olympia that new state laws for what she calls autonomous vehicles are "premature."
Jessica Lang: "There's an open question as to whether autonomous vehicle legislation is needed at all, or if it is needed just yet."
Lang cautions that new regulation could inadvertently curb cutting-edge features. Some luxury cars already include stuff like parallel parking assist, adaptive cruise control, blind spot warning, and pedestrian detection. Here, Mercedes-Benz advertises "active lane keeping assist..."
M-B video ad soundtrack: "...Oohh! There is goes. It brings you straight back on the straight and narrow, and you're back on the right side..."
Jessica Lang says these kinds of gadgets could become the building blocks for future robocars.
Photo: Google executives Eric Schmidt (from left), Larry Page and Sergey Brin in a self-driving car. Courtesy of Google.
Jessica Lang: "Our approach has been one that encourages and supports this technology while not stifling the automated and conditionally autonomous technology that is here today."
Representatives from Google urged state lawmakers to defer to federal regulators. The tech giant has about a dozen self-driving test vehicles, which the company says have logged more than 400,000 miles without an accident. Project engineer Anthony Levandowski briefed a House panel in Olympia via Skype from Silicon Valley. Levandowski says Google has no plans to test self-driving cars in the Pacific Northwest until their reliability in snow and rain improves.
Anthony Levandowski: "Our technology doesn't do great in Washington's weather. (audience chuckles)
Chairwoman Judy Clibborn: "It's only good in California, huh?
Anthony: "Right now, yes."
That laughing questioner is the chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee Judy Clibborn. She promptly declared the push to set Washington state standards "not cooked yet" and parked it on the spot.
Still, insurance lobbyist Mel Sorenson stepped to the mic to urge lawmakers to clarify now that human drivers are accountable and liable in case of an accident.
Mel Sorenson: "There are issues that need to be addressed early on in any discussion about autonomous vehicles that bear on insurance issues."
So how soon could a fully autonomous vehicle come to a showroom near you? That depends on who you ask. A common answer from industry insiders is: sometime after 2020. The Nevada, California and Florida legislatures have already authorized autonomous vehicle testing in their states. Michigan is among several other states considering doing the same this winter.
Bills in the Oregon and Wash. Legislatures to set standards for autonomous vehicles:
Oregon House Bill 2428 (by Rep. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis): http://gov.oregonlive.com/bill/2013/HB2428/
Washington House bills: HB 1439 (by Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Whatcom County) and HB 1649 (by Rep. Zack Hudgins, D-Tukwila)
Google blog post on self-driving cars:
Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers: