DMV signals for self-driving cars to go driverless

'Ghost cars' could be zipping around Mountain View streets under DMV proposal

For nearly three years, Mountain View residents have become accustomed to seeing self-driving cars zipping around town, but the technology could soon be kicking off its training wheels.

In a big leap, the California Department of Motor Vehicles Friday published new proposed rules that would allow autonomous car companies to test cars without any human driver inside -- meaning self-driving cars would finally be truly driverless. If so, it could be a common sight to see unoccupied "ghost cars" zipping around Mountain View's streets.

"This is really the next step to moving forward the driverless testing and also the public use," said DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez. "A number of (self-driving car manufacturers) will be ready to move forward with driverless testing over the next year to make this happen."

The new rules announced on Friday, March 10, come as the latest step in a fast-paced industry that, in many cases, is leaving regulators racing to catch up. Currently, 27 different manufacturers have permits with the California DMV to test autonomous vehicles in the state, and many of those firms are either based in Mountain View or have an office nearby.

While self-driving cars would no longer need a human behind the wheel, car manufacturers would need to have someone monitoring the vehicles remotely. It isn't clear exactly how this would be accomplished, but reportedly the technology is sufficient to allow human monitors to remotely track autonomous vehicles. DMV officials are not specifying how many vehicles one human could monitor simultaneously.

Many details of the new regulations are being left vague at this point as DMV officials prepare to gather feedback from stakeholders, including industry representatives and consumer advocates. Department officials are planning a public review of the proposed new rules next month, and they will modify them accordingly, Gonzalez said. She said she expected the new rules to take effect by November, at the earliest.

These new regulations could have particular significance for the city of Mountain View because, for the first time, local officials will be required to sanction any testing of driverless vehicles. Originally, DMV officials were mulling the idea of asking local jurisdictions to pass an ordinance or resolution for the testing. That seemed too complicated, so the rules were loosened to force autonomous-car companies to instead seek only "written support" from the jurisdiction.

This cooperation with local authorities would also apply to law enforcement. With no human behind the wheel of a self-driving car, police officers would need a new way to stop these vehicles if they malfunctioned or presented a safety risk. Companies would likely be required to create a new web portal for police to access information on a car's ownership, insurance, its human monitor and how to safely remove it from the roadway, Gonzalez said.

These rules may also open the possibility for regular consumers to take a ride in autonomous vehicles. The new DMV regulations would only prohibit companies from charging riders a fee like a taxi service during this testing phase. But if companies wanted to give regular citizens a free ride -- perhaps as a way to introduce the technology to the public -- that would be allowed, Gonzalez said.

In Mountain View, Google has been the most conspicuous player in the self-driving car market through its spin-off Waymo. Contacted by the Voice, Waymo representatives said they had no comment on the new rules. The company is currently testing 60 self-driving cars throughout California.

Mountain View leaders had a mixed reaction to the news when they were contacted by the Voice on Monday. City Manager Dan Rich said the city would need to further review any regulations to decide how local law enforcement would be involved.

"We have not had a role in this before so we need to learn more about it," Rich said in an email. "We hope this new regulation advances the technology while also ensuring safety to the greatest extent possible."

But other observers have already hailed the new rules as the right step forward to maintain Silicon Valley's edge on innovation.

"California is serious about encouraging the development, testing and deployment of safe autonomous vehicles," state Sen. Jerry Hill said in a statement. "The completion of the regulations is important so our state can maintain its leading edge in this competitive field."


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1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 15, 2017 at 10:30 am

We are all used to seeing these around now, but I want to know whether we will be able to tell the difference between one that has an operator inside and one that doesn't. I already tend to automatically give a wide berth to these vehicles but in an emergency I think I would like to be aware that there's nobody inside who needs help getting out before I endanger my own life trying to save an operator who isn't there!

5 people like this
Posted by Question
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 15, 2017 at 11:55 am

Good point, Resident.
Will those cars be marked somehow or colored in the way that we can see them from a distance? ... and avoid them ...

3 people like this
Posted by HUTCH 7.62
a resident of Portola Valley
on Mar 15, 2017 at 12:10 pm

Great..... I guess we will be seeing more Lame'o Waymo cars. Expect more traffic delays as the things clog up the streets and merge doing 25 when traffic is doing 35

2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 15, 2017 at 3:27 pm

"Expect more traffic delays as the things clog up the streets and merge doing 25 when traffic is doing 35"

Aha! The truth is out. This is a government plot to enforce speed limits using robot cars that ignore horns, blinking lights, and closeup tailgating.

2 people like this
Posted by bill1940
a resident of Menlo Park
on Mar 15, 2017 at 5:40 pm

I'm curious how an officer of the police will manage to pull over one of these vehicles if it, for example, runs a red light, speeds, etc ...

The police will definitely need a back door to stop one in a sensible manner.

These autos are far from perfect and hopefully, one of them will not cause bodily injury to either a person, animal or damage another vehicle, bicycles and the like.

I simply do not trust computer hardware and software as much as apparently the DMV does. And, if someone figures out how to hack one of these beasts, well, all hell will break out ... be wary.

4 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 16, 2017 at 3:41 pm

We'll never win. For decades we've been trying to reduce the number of single-occupant vehicles. Now the DMV is adding no-occupant cars. Arrrgh.

4 people like this
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 16, 2017 at 4:19 pm

Done correctly you could reduce congestion and yet have more cars on the road by automating traffic.

Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 16, 2017 at 9:35 pm

" Done correctly you could reduce congestion and yet have more cars on the road by automating traffic."

Nothing can go wrong ... go wrong ... go wrong ...

Like this comment
Posted by YIMBY
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 16, 2017 at 10:00 pm

To be fair, self-driving cars don't even have to be perfect. They just have to be better at driving than humans. And that's a very low bar.

Like this comment
Posted by WilliamR
a resident of another community
on Mar 16, 2017 at 10:37 pm

This is an honest question--

Are self-driving cars smart enough to pull into the next lane and accelerate around slow-moving trucks?

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 16, 2017 at 10:40 pm

The difference between a bad human driver on the road having an accident and a bad driverless empty car on the road having an accident is that the bad human driver would never be allowed on the road again whereas a bad driverless empty car is that none of the fleet of driverless cars would ever be allowed on the road again.

One bad driver is one bad driver. One bad driverless car is all of them.

PS, I'm a bit of an advocate for selfdrive cars, I look forward to them proving themselves but it doesn't stop me being wary.

Like this comment
Posted by john_alderman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 16, 2017 at 10:42 pm

john_alderman is a registered user.

Maybe the city proposal to raise speed limits makes some sense, since the only vehicles that pay attention to it are self-driving.

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