Fortunately, only one of those statements is true. Unfortunately however, they’re both so mind-bendingly absurd, you’d be hard pressed to guess which one is pure poppycock.
Care to place your bets on which one is true? The least illogical of the two, surely? Arguably, there’s at least some logic — if you’re drunk, comically pro-oil, or believe that solar power plants should be illegal because they will drain the sun of its energy — that electric cars could be mandated to carry backup gasoline tanks, just as cars need to carry a spare tire, no matter how utterly stupid that would be.
In contrast, the notion that “driverless” cars must include drivers is per se a contradiction, and cannot possibly be true. Obviously.
So which is it? Take a long, deep breath. And three shots of your favorite hard alcohol. Maybe seven. Better yet, just pass out and don’t even continue reading because it will likely cause your blood to boil and your face to explode.
If you guessed Tesla requiring auxiliary gas tanks, pat yourself on the back: you chose wisely. It means you’re not insane, completely stupid, or utterly devoid of all common sense. And you’d be wrong.
If you guessed driverless cars requiring drivers, you’re either incredibly stupid, or work for the government and have an ear on the inside. (Or, perhaps already read Autoblog’s coverage here.) And you’d be right.
The point is, I’m sad to report that California’s Department of Motor Vehicles has once again sunk to new levels of low. And by low, I mean impossibly, brain-numbingly stupid, batshit idiotic low.
To be fair, this is not a law that has been passed yet. Rather, it’s a proposal via the just-published California Department of Motor Vehicles Summary of Draft Autonomous Vehicles Deployment Regulations (let’s just call it the “draft regulations”) to implement such a law, as enabled by California Vehicle Code Section 38750(d)(2), that “requires the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to adopt regulations … necessary to ensure the safe operation of autonomous vehicles on public roads, with or without the presence of a driver inside the vehicle.” (Emphasis added.)
In simple terms, Section 38750 mandates that the California DMV needs to come up with safety regulations governing autonomous vehicles, whether they include a driver or not. But it appears the DMV is going all the way, and is determined to ensure that true “driverless” vehicles do not, in fact, become a thing on our roads; at least, not any time soon.
This is absurdly myopic and counterproductive for several reasons.
First, it imposes upon today’s most revolutionary companies — Google, Tesla, Ford, Volvo, just to name a few — an additional (legal) layer of complexity on top of what is already arguably one of the most challenging technical hurdles of our time, i.e., autonomous vehicles; so challenging, in fact, that Google and Tesla are approaching it with very different philosophies.
It misses the point entirely by making ambiguous the distinction between “driverless” autonomous cars and “driver-managed-autopilot-enabled” cars.
Second, it misses the point entirely by making ambiguous the distinction between “driverless” autonomous cars and “driver-managed-autopilot-enabled” cars, to use my own lingo. While the former must be “driverless” per se, i.e., devoid of a human operator, the latter must be human managed.
To return (yet again) to the aviation industry by way of example, today’s commercial aircraft, with their advanced flight computer autopilot systems, are not in fact “pilotless.” Rather, they are “pilot-managed-autopilot-enabled.” In effect, this means that the pilots are always held accountable for anything that goes wrong.
This is as it should be with semi-autonomous vehicles like the Tesla Model S and Model X, the new 2016 Volvo XC90, not to mention the Mercedes S Class, that are not true “driverless” vehicles. Given that these cars are not “driverless,” then by definition, a human must be present, if only as a condition precedent to the very operation of the vehicle — to wit, the vehicles are unable to drive themselves without a human operator. So with respect to these driver-managed-autopilot-enabled cars, then, the DMV’s mandate is not only appropriate, it is necessary.
Indeed, it is my opinion that Volvo, despite playing its cards with absolute perfection in this post-Geely era of the Swedish marque’s history, has made a terrible, potentially catastrophic blunder by claiming it will accept all liability for any accidents, injuries, or deaths caused by its autonomous vehicles. This is a problem for one big reason: Volvo’s immediate game plan is not in fact true “driverless” cars, but rather, fully autonomous yet still driver-managed cars. Their philosophy, at least for the foreseeable future, is that humans should still remain very much in control of the car.
For Volvo to accept such carte blanche universal liability per se in all [autonomous car] accidents is tantamount to Boeing or Airbus accepting all liability whenever a 737 or A320 crashes.
In this case, for Volvo to accept such carte blanche universal liability per se in all accidents is tantamount to Boeing or Airbus accepting all liability whenever a 737 or A320 crashes, an obviously untenable, senseless and indeed, counterproductive solution: by leaving the liability in the hands of the pilots, the laws recognize, and make abundantly clear that, notwithstanding the aircrafts’ advanced autopilot systems, they are nevertheless not pilotless craft, and the human operators must bear full responsibility.
The result then is an effective dilution of what it means for a car to be “driverless” as opposed to merely autonomous, never mind the stifling effect it will have on development henceforth should the proposal become law.
With this proposal, [Google’s self-driving cars and Switzerland’s driverless buses] are now in jeopardy.
What of Switzerland’s forthcoming driverless buses, for instance, which has no structural design interface to accept a human driver? They had been — and were slated to continue — testing in California, and it required very little imagination to see them in public service on California roads in the next few years. With this proposal, their future is now in jeopardy. (I will be reaching out to NAVYA, the company that develops the buses, in an attempt to get a statement on their thoughts on this matter.)
To be fair, don’t forget: this is not law yet and is still subject to formal hearings in January and February. That said, as a California-licensed attorney, I would be remiss not to dissect the language of this proposal that concerns me so.
To clarify a delicate point, the regulations presently on the books mandate a driver only in autonomous vehicles that can not in fact operate without a human driver. To wit, Cal. Veh. Code Sec. 38750 defines “autonomous vehicles” as those vehicles equipped with “autonomous technology,” in turn defined as “technology that has the capability to drive a vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator.”
In particular, an “autonomous vehicle” then is not a vehicle with current popular accident avoidance technologies such as emergency braking, lane keep assist, self-parking systems, traffic jam assist, and that is not “capable … of driving the vehicle without the active control or monitoring of a human operator.”
As it currently stands, Cal. Veh. Code Sec. 38750(e)(2), when read concurrently with the draft regulations proposing the presence of a driver in an otherwise “driverless” car, does not per se preclude driverless cars from operating without human drivers capable of taking control, but rather that
“the department may impose additional requirements it deems necessary to ensure the safe operation of those vehicles, and may require the presence of a driver in the driver’s seat of the vehicle if it determines … that such a requirement is necessary to ensure the safe operation of those vehicles on public roads.” (Emphasis added.)
What’s concerning to me — and, obviously, to Google — is that pending the result of the draft regulations and subsequent law following the next few months worth of hearings, the permissive language explicit in this wording leaves little doubt that true driverless cars will almost certainly have their wings clipped, effectively placing a moratorium on the nascent autonomous car revolution before it even gets off the ground.
To put it another way, permissive legislation allowing mandatory driver presence in otherwise “driverless” cars is tantamount to legislation mandating the presence of such drivers. Only if written in the negative, i.e., that true driverless cars are per se exempt from requiring drivers, would companies like Google be free to continue their research into true driverless cars.
This delay will in turn needlessly, necessarily prolong the reduction of vehicular injury and death.
This is an alarmingly distressing — and disappointing — direction in which the DMV is headed, and, while it may serve to reduce some unfortunate bumps in the road, so to speak, during the roll-out of autonomous cars, it will also necessarily delay their introduction,. This delay will in turn needlessly, necessarily prolong the reduction of vehicular injury and death, some 96% of which are caused by human error, some four-fifths of which will eventually be eliminated by driverless cars.
Yes, true driverless cars will have their fair share of problems, and yes some will cause accidents, injuries, and even death. But there will be far less than today’s human-controlled cars, and even the infamous “self-driving car ethics paradox” and its potential for moral decision-based harm pales in comparison to today’s 3,000 vehicle deaths per month in the U.S.
The first fully autonomous — though not yet “driverless” — cars will be in consumer hands by 2020 — just four years away — the start of an exciting new decade shaping up to be the most important year in automobile history. And unless this asinine proposal by California is squashed on its face for its cowardly, myopic approach and failure to properly embrace such incredible new technology without unnecessary hindrances, the subsequent rollout of true driverless cars could be delayed by years, even decades, and rather than make our roads safer more quickly, will instead leave them only slightly less dangerous far longer.
The permissive language must be dropped in favor of unequivocal support allowing for true driverless cars.
This is neither a desirable nor a tenable solution, and the language of the law must be altered so as to enable true driverless cars to be both tested, operated, and indeed sold without a driver required at the wheel. The permissive language must be dropped in favor of unequivocal support allowing for true driverless cars.
Forthcoming hearings will be open to the public in January (Sacramento) and February (Los Angeles), with information available at the DMV’s website.
You can bet I’ll be there. Let me know in the comments if you’ll be attending, and I’ll see you there!