Self-driving cars would need a driver under California rules
Google envisions a world where a blind man can get in his car alone and tell it to take him to the grocery store. California regulators say self-driving automobiles aren't smart enough yet to zip around town without a driver ready to take the wheel.
The state's Department of Motor Vehicles is finalizing regulationsfor the everyday use of autonomous cars with the goal of releasing them in the next year. They would require a licensed driver -- and a steering wheel -- just in case something goes wrong. Google says the rules limit the technology's potential.
Bryan Bashin, the 60-year executive director of LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired in San Francisco who uses a long, white cane to maneuver city streets, said a driverless car "would be one of the biggest advances for the blind since talking computers or even Braille." It represents freedom from the hassles of public transit and makes suburban destinations attainable, he said.
Car and technology companies are closely watching California's adoption of the rules, which could open the largest U.S. consumer market, 39 million people, to the new technology. It also will likely influence other states as they develop their own regulations. California has often been first to adopt policies later embraced by other states, including clean-air standards, legalization of medical marijuana and paid family leave.
The technology could revolutionize the way people get around, replace traditional cars, and transform roads and highways to accommodate them. California's efforts coincide with the Obama administration's push to foster the industry, including developing federal guidelines and pledging a 10-year, $4 billion budget for research and infrastructure changes.
Six states, including Nevada and Michigan, and Washington, D.C., already have enacted legislation advancing the development of the cars, according to the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. The Golden State is the pacesetter.
"California is the place that everyone's watching and learning what to do and what not to do," said Bryant Walker Smith, assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law who has taught a course on self-driving cars.
Opponents say requiring a licensed operator in a self- driving car defeats the purpose of the technology. The state agency is holding a meeting in Sacramento on Thursday to gather input on the proposal from the industry and the public.
Google spokesman Johnny Luu declined to comment.
Chris Urmson, director of the company's self-driving car project, said in a Dec. 17 blog post after the DMV released its plan that the elderly and people with conditions such as vision problems, multiple sclerosis, autism and epilepsy would benefit from more liberal regulations.
The California proposal "maintains the same old status quo and falls short on allowing this technology to reach its full potential, while excluding those who need to get around but cannot drive," Urmson wrote. "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."
California doesn't outright oppose allowing autonomous cars to operate without a human intervention, said DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez. It's just that vehicles without a driver and steering wheel haven't been tested enough, she said.
"We want to get there," Gonzalez said. "We're definitely not against it. We just need to make sure that it's safe."
Getting there could open up a massive market. Fully and partially autonomous cars may account for $42 billion in global sales in 2025 and $77 billion in 2035, according to Boston Consulting Group data. The cars could represent 25 percent of the worldwide market by 2035, the data show.
Google, Tesla, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Volkswagen and Ford are among 11 companies that have autonomous-vehicle testing permits, according to December data from the California DMV. Even Apple may be working on a driverless-car project.
"A phase with a driver, at least to get started to see how things are happening, share data and collect experience, may be the way to ensure that the process is under control and that nothing regrettable happens," said Xavier Mosquet, a Detroit- based senior partner in the automotive practice at the Boston Consulting Group.
Some companies are already experimenting with the technology. Tesla this month unveiled features that allow a driver who has stepped out of the car to prompt it to open the garage door, park itself and shut down. Elon Musk, Tesla's chief executive officer, predicts an electric car will drive autonomously from coast to coast within two years.
"For California I see two good things -- the regulator is coming up with solutions and they are not waiting or slowing things down," Mosquet said.
Approval can't come swiftly enough for Diane Starin, 57, a Sacramento resident who went blind as a toddler from cancer of the optic nerve. She gets around on public transit and hails cars through apps from Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc.
"I envision it drastically changing my life," she said. "Everything from necessities to socializing, being out late at night and not worrying about how to get home. It's huge. It's just like someone getting a car who didn't have one."