California lawmaker seeks to allow self-driving car testing on public roads

A new bill in California’s legislature that aims to smooth the path for fully driverless vehicles on the state’s public roads is being proposed by an assembly member who has received thousands of dollars from Google.

It is one of two bills currently under discussion that would relax the rules on testing self-driving cars in the US’s largest state and the test bed for automated driving.

The bill being promoted by Mike Gatto, who represents several communities in and near Los Angeles, would allow Google and others to test vehicles on public streets without a steering wheel, brake pedal or human safety driver.

Gatto has received contributions from Google and Ford, which is also testing driverless car technology in California, according to state campaign finance records. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is considering spinning out its self-driving car project into a separate business.

The move comes after some members of Congress have expressed skepticism about the road-readiness of robot cars. Alphabet and others are under pressure to conform to universal testing standards and to be more open about their own testing processes.

“[I find] it a little bit ridiculous that the California department of motor vehicles (DMV) has passed a regulation that says driverless cars have to have a driver in them,” Gatto told the Guardian. “[It is] one of those regulations that veers into the absurd and runs the risk of making our state’s governance a laughing stock.”

California currently requires all experimental self-driving cars being tested on public roads to have manual controls and a human driver ready to take over at a moment’s notice should something go wrong. Other states, however, have laxer rules. Texas, where Google is also testing self-driving cars, has no special regulations for autonomous vehicles, while Arizona is planning to deploy completely driverless vehicles on state universities in partnership with Uber.

In a blog post calling for California to relax the rules on driverless cars Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving car program, said that California’s insistence on human safety drivers “maintains the same old status quo and falls short on allowing this technology to reach its full potential”.

“We are competing with business-friendly states like Texas,” said assembly member Ling Ling Chang, who introduced a separate bill that would oblige California to consider autonomous vehicle recommendations from federal transport agencies. “We need to make sure we don’t lose another opportunity for keeping jobs in California – and potential federal funding,” she added in a press release promoting the bill.

Gatto’s bill, AB2866, would permit the testing of vehicles without a steering wheel, brake pedal or accelerator, and even without a human inside at all. Google is currently the only company testing such a vehicle. Pilot projects could take place in three of California’s 58 counties starting in 2017, under the supervision of the DMV and the California highway patrol.

“Law enforcement would be involved for public safety,” says Gatto. “This is a very new technology and we’re obviously dealing with an item that kills more people annually in the US than anything else.” Google’s self-driving cars have been involved in 18 minor accidents on California’s roads since 2010, while covering nearly 1.5m miles. Google and other car makers hope that autonomous vehicles might reduce America’s annual road deaths of over 35,000.

Gatto has received $6,000 in campaign finance from Google since 2012, including $2,000 for a 2016 senate campaign. He has also received a total of $10,000 from Ford, another car maker with a permit for autonomous vehicle testing in California.

Gatto says that he did not talk with autonomous car makers before introducing the bill. “But I’ve heard from them since and it’s been a productive conversation,” he said. “They would like a clear statement from the California legislature that we support this technology and would like to foster it in this state.”

A Google spokesperson said that the company was aware of but not involved with the bills.

Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, says, “A law that gives individual communities more flexibility in working with these developers could be a good thing.” But he also points out that Google shaped the original autonomous vehicle legislation in California, which disadvantaged systems that the company was not pursuing, such as automated lorries.

“This pattern will happen again,” he says. “A prominent company will announce an automated driving product or service and will then describe any specific legal changes necessary for its deployment. If the message (or messenger) is powerful, many states will likely accede.”

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