California governor gives green light to driverless cars

John Egan

California now is in the fast lane when it comes to self-driving cars.

On Sept. 25, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation instructing the state Department of Motor Vehicles to adopt regulations and safety standards for self-driving cars by Jan. 1, 2015. The new state law also lets driverless cars operate on public roads for testing purposes, as long as each car has a fully licensed person behind the wheel.

“Today, we’re looking at science fiction becoming reality – the self-driving car,” Brown said.

Brown signed the bill at the Northern California headquarters of Google Inc., whose technology is behind self-driving Toyota Prius hybrids that currently are being tested. He was joined by Google co-founder Sergey Brin and state Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat from Southern California who sponsored the legislation.

“I expect that self-driving cars are going to be far safer than human-driven cars,” Brin said at the bill-signing ceremony.

What the future holds

Brin anticipates the general public being able to use self-driving cars within five years. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers predicts self-driving cars will account for up to three-fourths of vehicles on the road by the year 2040.

In a recent report, accounting firm KPMG and the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research forecast that consumers will wholeheartedly embrace self-driving cars. “Consumers are eager for new mobility alternatives that would allow them to stay connected,” the report says, “and recapture the time and psychic energy they squander in traffic jams and defensive driving.”

California now is the second state that has authorized self-driving cars; these vehicles already are traveling on roads in Nevada.

Google’s fleet of self-driving Toyotas has racked up more than 300,000 test miles on California roads. Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Volkswagen and Volvo are among the other automakers that are working on driverless cars.

Safer roads?

Brin said self-driving technology “really has the power to change people’s lives.”

One of those changes, supporters said, will be a reduction in the number of people who are injured and killed in car crashes – most of which are caused by human error.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Padilla said. “These vehicles have the potential to avoid accidents. That alone was reason enough to pursue this bill.”

During the bill-signing ceremony, someone in the audience asked Brown who’d be issued a traffic ticket if a self-driving car runs a red light.

“Whoever owns the car, I would think,” Brown replied. “But we’ll work that out. That’s going to be the easiest problem to work out.”

Brin chimed in to add: “Self-driving cars do not run red lights.” That remark drew a big round of applause.

Insurance and liability concerns

Experts say it’s too soon to tell how self-driving cars will be insured. Some critics, including the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, have expressed concern about liability issues that will be raised by lawsuits stemming from wrecks involving driverless cars.

The report from KPMG and the Center for Automotive Research acknowledges that setting auto insurance rates for driverless cars will be a “thorny issue.” Furthermore, the report says, legal concerns over who “owns” the risk of self-driving cars will present challenges.

“If the driver, by design, is no longer in control, what happens if the vehicle crashes? The ‘driver’ could well be an innocent bystander or might at least bear lesser liability than drivers do today,” the report says. “A legal framework will be necessary to deal with the potentially complex liability issues that may come with self-driving cars.”

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