Driverless cars: Is the state’s approach best? – The San Diego Union-Tribune

Posted: Monday, December 21, 2015

The California Department of Motor Vehicles released preliminary rules last week for driverless cars that led Google, a pioneer in the field, to pronounce itself “gravely disappointed.” DMV’s most significant requirements: The cars must have a steering wheel, can only be used if a licensed driver is in the vehicle in case the autonomous driving system fails and can only be leased, not sold, to state residents.

DMW officials say they want to strike a balance between safety and encouraging a promising technology. They won applause from some corners. But Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who is an authority on the legal issues involved with self-driving cars, told Associated Press that California’s rules point “to a very long slog ahead for not just Google, but really other automakers as well.”

We’re not sure this slog is necessary. We wonder if the DMV grasps how much safer driving will be once the 94 percent of driver-caused accidents begins to be reduced; the present yearly average of 32,000 U.S. traffic deaths would dwindle. We also wonder if there’s an appreciation of the enormous environmental gains that would result in a future in which fleets of driverless electric cars moved Californians from place to place, or how much it would improve the lives of those who can’t drive for various reasons.

Smith believes California is “leading in the wrong direction,” given the impressive safety results seen so far in tests of driverless cars. But unlike with auto emissions rules, where the Golden State often inspires the rest of the nation, it’s not going to happen with autonomous cars. Instead, Texas is likely to take the lead in introducing the driverless future, thanks to Google testing facilities in Austin — and to state regulators who appreciate the immense promise of this technology.

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