California's Driverless Car Bill Passes Assembly Transportation Committee

The California Assembly Transportation Committee unanimously passed the SB 1298 bill Monday, which regulates autonomous vehicles.
by | July 3, 2012

California’s Assembly Transportation Committee passed a bill to bring California one step closer to regulating driverless vehicles. With a bipartisan vote Monday of 12-0, this is the second step for the SB 1298 bill after also unanimously passing the State Senate in late May but before going before the Assembly Appropriations Committee in Aug.

Autonomous cars may be years from consumer use, but they are already tested extensively by companies such as Google, Audi, Volvo and BMW. And as of May, Nevada became the first state to issue a license for driverless cars specifically for testing purposes on public roads. This follows a similar legislative bill passed in Nevada last year.

“Thousands of Californian’s tragically die in auto accidents each year. The vast majority of these collisions are due to human error. Through the use of computers, sensors, and other systems, an autonomous vehicle can analyze the driving environment more quickly and accurately and can operate the vehicle more safely. Autonomous vehicles have the potential to significantly reduce traffic fatalities and injuries,” said Sen. Alex Padilla, author of the SB 1298 bill.

Padilla believes the emerging technology is a step in the right direction and his legislation follows the precedent set last year by Nevada.

The bill dictates that the California Highway Patrol develop the rules rather than the legislators regulating the autonomous vehicles. “I envision a future that includes self-driving cars,” Padilla said. “Establishing safety standards for these vehicles is an essential step in that process.”

Padilla says that the technology already exists but there is a gap in legislation. This is where the SB 1298 is important. The bill will provide structure for regulation and safety and performance standards. It requires that a licensed driver be in the vehicle and is specific for the testing of autonomous vehicles only.

Other states have introduced similar legislation. Florida passed a bill in April, which went into effect July 1, to direct the creation of regulations for the operations of autonomous vehicles on public roads. Arizona, Hawaii and Oklahoma have also introduced bills to regulate autonomous vehicles.

Governing reported in March that the federal government has little say in the regulations of autonomous vehicles. Jaime Rall, a senior policy specialist for transportation issues at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said that the matter will be left to the states. Safety standards, liability and vehicle registration, among others are not federal government concerns, meaning states will regulate the emerging technology of autonomous vehicles.

Although the bill has faced little resistance, Consumer Watchdog, a consumer advocacy group, voiced concerns with the bill in May before the bill passed the Senate. Their problem with the legislation stemmed from the bill’s biggest advocate: Google. Google has been testing autonomous vehicles and logged over 200,000 miles safely on auto-pilot.

However, in order for the vehicle to make the necessary autonomous driving decisions, it relies on lasers, cameras and radar, all of which collect data. Consumer Watchdog is concerned with what Google will do with the collected data. In a letter to Assembly Speaker John Perez, the group requested the bill protect the privacy of information collected by autonomous vehicles.

“Without appropriate regulations, Google’s vehicles will be able to gather unprecedented amounts of information about the use of those vehicles,” wrote Jamie Court, Consumer Watchdog president and John Simpson, their Privacy Project director. “How will it be used? Just as Google tracks us around the Information Superhighway, it will now be looking over our shoulder on every highway and byway.”

Despite the letter to Perez, the bill passed without an amendment to protect the collection of data by autonomous vehicles as suggested by the advocacy group. Padilla’s office predicts little resistance to the bill, and fully expects the bill to go before the Governor by the end of Aug.

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