Google's self-driving car had already logged hundreds of thousands of
miles on Bay Area roads before Gov. Jerry Brown took a ceremonious spin in an
autonomous Prius last year and signed a law allowing the vehicles to operate in
Now bureaucrats in state government are playing catch-up, writing a whole new set of rules of the road.
Should a blind man be allowed to operate a self-driving car? Will an 8-year-old be permitted to "drive" herself to school? Should the vehicles roll through all kinds of weather? Who will be at fault when a robotic car crashes?
The Department of Motor Vehicles is tackling these and other issues in government's latest scramble to keep up with technological advances.
"Laws are not able to keep pace with some of the changes taking place in the technology sector," said Sanjay Varshney, dean of the business school at California State University, Sacramento.
Think of cellphones, drones or Google's computerized glasses. All of them were created before some states figured out they wanted to regulate use by the public.
When it comes to self-driving cars, California is trying to move from behind the curve to ahead of it. The technology could be widely available in five years, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said at last year's signing of Senate Bill 1298.
The bill Brown signed at Google headquarters in Mountain View allows autonomous vehicles to operate on state roads, but the measure leaves it up to the DMV to work out the details. The process is just getting started, but signs of tension have already emerged between state regulators and carmakers who want wide latitude to test their inventions on California roads.
One example of Google's work to bridge the gap: It recently hired a longtime traffic-safety bureaucrat to head its public policy effort on autonomous cars.
Officials from multiple state agencies -- including motor vehicles, highway patrol, transportation and insurance -- meet regularly to hammer out just how Californians will use autonomous vehicles in their daily lives. They aim to to have all the rules in place by the end of next year.
"Our challenge as government agencies is to look several years down the road at where the technology might be. Are our laws ready for the technology that the private sector might introduce?" said Chris Shultz, who sits on the committee drafting the regulations as a deputy director at the Department of Insurance.
"We want to be ready for those products, not say, 'You can't sell those products in California because our laws aren't ready yet,' " he added.
New rules for auto insurance will be necessary, he said, because under current law, rates are determined by drivers' years of experience and the number of miles they drive per year.
"Autonomous vehicles raise an interesting issue because (eventually) there might not even be a licensed driver in the vehicle," he said.
That possibility is still several years out. The rules state officials are making now anticipate that a person will operate the car. First they'll craft rules for carmakers testing autonomous technology, and second, rules for the public to operate the cars.
Officials have not yet determined what criteria those people would have to meet -- in terms of age, vision or driving skill. Bernard Soriano, a deputy director
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