Soapbox

DMV is off track on proposed rules for self-driving cars

A police officer pulls over a self-driving car being tested by Google in Mountain View in November.
A police officer pulls over a self-driving car being tested by Google in Mountain View in November. via The Associated Press

The rise of self-driving vehicles is not the much-feared rise of the machines that some make it out to be. But try explaining that to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

With direction from the Legislature and under the auspices of protecting consumers from untested products, the state’s automotive-licensing body issued proposed regulations last week intended to control how these new vehicles will hit California’s roads.

The DMV will require a licensed driver to be at the wheel in case of an emergency, a decision that may have been a response to loud calls by some consumer-safety advocates. What that idea has an intuitive appeal, it lacks in both vision and technological understanding.

The safety gains of self-driving cars – as well as the associated savings in health care, litigation and insurance costs – are tied closely to eliminating the leading cause of automotive death and destruction: human drivers.

A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the causes of crashes found that driver error is the single largest factor – not vehicle condition, system failure, adverse environmental conditions or roadway design. It’s ironic that, by requiring manufacturers to let drivers take the wheel in an emergency, DMV is effectively requiring them to let drivers make potentially fatal mistakes.

Immediate safety concerns aside, in the wake of the Paris summit on global greenhouse gas emissions, it bears remembering that allowing driver input will have negative long-term environmental repercussions. Even as the state strives to embrace greener vehicles, consumer acceptance of those vehicles will depend on their efficiency.

Vehicle weight is the enemy of vehicle efficiency. The cars we drive today are over-engineered into metal cocoons solely to protect us from ourselves. So long as human drivers remain behind the wheel, heavy and inefficient bodies will be needed. In a very real sense, the DMV’s regulations harm the Brown administration’s efforts to combat climate change.

As currently constructed, these proposed rules work at cross-purposes with operator and passenger safety and with the state’s desire to ensure a livable planet in the future. But given some thoughtful modifications, they could present a real opportunity for California to lead the world into its next era of transportation.

Other states, including neighboring Nevada, also are working on policies for self-driving cars. Should they embrace a less restrictive approach, California risks losing its status as the premier venue for autonomous-vehicle design and development.

The most important consideration in the DMV’s course forward should be its effect on human lives. In 2013, 32,719 Americans perished in traffic crashes. The DMV’s regulations must weigh that human toll against the potential harm of allowing self-driving-vehicle technology to reach to its full potential. At the moment, it is getting that balance flat wrong.

Ian Adams is director of the Sacramento office of the R Street Institute, a nonprofit public policy research organization headquartered in Washington, D.C.. He can be contacted at iadams@rstreet.org.

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