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California wants to require drivers for self-driving cars

By   /   January 7, 2016  /   News  /   No Comments

Self-driving cars might revolutionize travel, but they won’t bring an end to waiting in line at the DMV, at least not in California.

The first state to roll out a series of regulations for self-driving cars, California says you’ll still need a driver’s license to have your car drive for you.

Image via Wiki Commons

WHO’S DRIVING? California says you’ll still need a drivers’ license if you want to use a self-driving car. That’s particularly funny when you realize that Google’s prototype autonomous cars are built without steering wheels or brake pedals. There’s nothing for a driver to use to drive.

More precisely, the new rules issued last week say a licensed driver must be sitting in the front seat — what we currently call the “driver’s seat,” a term we might have to rethink once self-driving cars become more common — at all times while the car is in motion. California says drivers will still be subject to state testing and other licensing requirements and the licensed driver will be held responsible for any accidents caused by the autonomous vehicle.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles says the draft regulations are intended to promote the continued development of autonomous vehicle technology in California, while transitioning manufacturers from testing to deployment of self-driving cars.

“The primary focus of the deployment regulations is the safety of autonomous vehicles and the safety of the public who will share the road with these vehicles,” said DMV Director Jean Shiomoto in a statement.

But the rules have rankled at least one major developer of autonomous vehicle technology.

Google says the new rules might limit the potential for self-driving cars before they even get on the road.

“Safety is our highest priority and primary motivator as we do this,” the company said in a statement. “We’re gravely disappointed that California is already writing a ceiling on the potential for fully self-driving cars to help all of us who live here.”

California’s rules would ban fully-driverless cars like Google’s prototype autonomous cars built without steering wheels or brake pedals. A driver would have to “be present inside the vehicle and be capable of taking control in the event of a technology failure or other emergency.”

That might not be a good thing. As Google also pointed out: 94 percent of all car accidents are the result of human error.  We’re all probably safer without a human being sitting in the so-called “driver’s seat” as anything other than a passenger.

In July 2015, Google reported its fleet of 23 self-driving cars had been involved in 14 minor traffic accidents during road-testing. In every case, a human driver was at fault.

The question of who takes responsibility for a wreck involving a self-driving car is an interesting one. Google and other developers of autonomous vehicles (Apple and Tesla are also spending big bucks on the tech) say they intend to allow responsibility to rest with the car manufacturers. The reason for doing that is two-fold: they want to take human error out of the equation as much as possible, but they also want to demonstrate complete confidence in what will be, to many people, a new and potentially frightening experience of not being in control of one’s own car.

If Google and the rest get what they want, they could end up revolutionizing the auto insurance industry. Why pay for insurance if the car itself is liable for any accidents?

In their current form, California’s self-driving car regulations would protect insurance companies by keeping liability with the “driver” of the autonomous car.

California says the new rules will be subject to public comment and the state will take suggestions from the car industry before finalizing them.

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Eric Boehm is the national regulatory reporter for Watchdog.org. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Reason Magazine, National Review Online, The Freeman Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Washington Examiner and Fox News. He was once featured in a BuzzFeed listicle. Follow him on Twitter @EricBoehm87 and reach him at [email protected]