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Could Your Car Drive Itself? Autonomous Driving Bill Paves the Way in California

California’s lawmakers are in the fast lane and Google is behind the wheel. Earlier this year, CA Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) pulled up to the state capitol in the passenger seat of an autonomous vehicle. Accompanied by Google Product Manager Anthony Levandowski, Sen. Padilla announced S.B. 1298, a bill establishing the laws governing autonomous vehicles. Recently, the CA Senate passed the bill, establishing the legal groundwork for people to sit back and let their cars do the driving.

What motivated this bill?

Tech giants such as Google, Caltech, and researchers at Stanford have been working to develop autonomous vehicles (aka self-driving cars) that use radar, cameras, and lasers to navigate traffic. Google has given a number of lawmakers a ride in its prototype and the general sentiment is these vehicles are a step towards a safer future. According to Sen. Padilla,

Through the use of computers, sensors and other systems, an autonomous vehicle can analyze the driving environment more quickly and accurately and can operate the vehicle more safely. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to significantly reduce traffic fatalities and injuries. I envision a future that includes self-driving cars. Establishing safety standards for these vehicles is an essential step in that process.

In addition to safety, autonomous vehicles can keep a smaller distance between vehicles, and many feel this will result in better fuel efficiency and less traffic congestion. Others hope autonomous vehicles will result in sweeping infrastructure changes, such as the reduced need for parking spaces and garages.

What does the autonomous driving bill do?

Currently, CA law does not prohibit or regulate autonomous vehicles. The new bill would:

  • Authorize the Department of California Highway Patrol to establish specific safety requirements for testing and operation of autonomous vehicles
  • Require manufacturers to certify their vehicle meets such standards
  • Not prohibit the operation and testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads before adoption of regulations

The bill defines “autonomous vehicle” as a “motor vehicle that uses computers, sensors, and other technology and devices that enable the vehicle to safely operate without the active control and continues monitoring of a human operator.”
Unlike similar legislation passed in Nevada, California lawmakers made sure to specify vehicles equipped with one or more crash avoidance systems, electronic blind spot assistance, automated emergency braking systems, park assist, etc., are not an autonomous vehicle, for purposes of this bill.

Concerns about autonomous vehicles

Unsurprisingly, there are some questions about the impact of self-driving cars. In addition to the obvious question of who is liable when an autonomous vehicle causes an accident, here are a few more concerns:

  • Privacy concerns: Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, is concerned “Just as Google tracks us around the information superhighway, it will now be looking over our shoulders on every highway and byway.”
  • Drunk driving: Will an individual who’s had one too many martinis be legally allowed to get behind the wheel of their self-driving car and tell it to drive them home?
  • Insurance rates: California’s Proposition 103 requires insurers to set rates based on the insured’s driving history. How does driving history factor in when the car is autonomous?

Despite these concerns, the bill has strong bipartisan support and passed 37-0 within the Senate. While the bill still needs to move to the state Assembly for consideration, it should soon become law. So the next time you’re stuck in traffic, take solace in knowing you may someday have your own personal (autonomous) driver.

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