California Considers Regulation of Autonomous Vehicles
By Yana Welinder – Edited by Albert Wang
On February 23, California Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) introduced S.B. 1298. This bill would direct the Department of the California Highway Patrol to adopt “safety standards and performance requirements” with respect to autonomous vehicles that use “computers, sensors, and other technology and devices that enable [them] to safely operate without the active control and continuous monitoring of a human operator.” The bill would further expressly permit the operation of such a vehicle on California roads if its manufacturer shows that the vehicle meets all the adopted requirements and standards. According to Sen. Padilla’s news release, this bill seeks to provide for safe use of vehicles that “have the potential to significantly reduce traffic fatalities and improve safety on [California] roads.” Similar legislation was introduced in Nevada last year and is currently being considered in Florida, Hawaii, and Oklahoma.
Wired provides an initial overview of the bill. Stanford CIS further compares the bill to legislative developments in other states.
According to the New York Times, Stanford researchers and Google have been developing autonomous vehicles in California for the last few years. They tested their vehicles on a route from San Francisco to Los Angeles with a person behind the wheel who could take control over the steering in case something went wrong. Given that California has been home to the early development and testing of autonomous vehicles, it is also one of the first states to consider legislation with respect to their safety standards. S.B. 1298 is supported by Google, which had its Product Manager, Anthony Levandowski, accompany Sen. Padilla in an autonomous vehicle to a news conference to announce the bill at the State Capitol in Sacramento. Sen. Padilla hopes that autonomous vehicles will save lives by eliminating traffic accidents caused by human errors. Autonomous vehicles can also keep a smaller distance between vehicles and could thus reduce traffic congestions and carbon dioxide emissions from car idling.
Wired has exposed a number of liability issues raised by legal scholars in light of this type of legislation. For example, who will be liable if pedestrians, erroneously relying on a vehicle’s ability to stop when it senses pedestrians,start walking out in front of vehicles just like they now stick out a leg to reopen an elevator door? Who will be liable if autonomous vehicles rely on lane markings that could be wiped away on some roads? CNN Tech has further stressed the importance of security of autonomous driving systems to ensure that hackers are not able to seize control over vehicles. These questions pertain to performance standards and could potentially be addressed by the Department of the California Highway Patrol as it develops standards pursuant to the California bill.
The California bill has addressed several issues found in the first legislation for autonomous vehicles that was introduced in Nevada last year. At that time, Stanford CIS noted that Nevada’s broad definition of “autonomous vehicles” could potentially refer to self-parking vehicles and thereby require additional testing for vehicles that were not previously considered to be “autonomous.” The California bill addressed this issue by expressly exempting “vehicle[s] equipped with [systems] that enhance safety or provide driver assistance, but are not capable, collectively or singularly, of driving the vehicle without the active control and continuous monitoring of a human operator.”
Another issue with the Nevada legislation was that it required the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles to develop the relevant safety standards. Given the California DMV’s workload, delegating such a difficult task to this agency could have staggered the development of standards for autonomous vehicles and long postponed any testing. But the California bill instead directs the Department of Highway Patrol (“the Department”) to develop these standards. It also clarifies that it does not prohibit the use or testing of the vehicles before the Department adopts its standards.
While the California bill addresses many of the issues raised in response to the Nevada legislation, it does not specify whether the Department’s “safety standards” are to include privacy regulations regarding the collection of information from computers that will operate these vehicles. Given that government agencies have already tried to take advantage of built-in technologies as well as GPS trackers (as previously covered by the Digest) to collect information from vehicles for law enforcement purposes, vehicles operated solely by computers raise questions regarding potential government surveillance. This issue may be clarified as the bill moves through the legislative process. Alternatively, the Department may include privacy regulations as part of its standards regardless of whether the California legislature clarifies the intended scope of the standards.