Self-Driving Cars Just Got Slapped With Major Rules

California regulators in San Francisco approved two pilot programs that inch us closer to driverless car services — and sets a model for other jurisdictions.

A self-driving Uber car takes a test drive in San Francisco Calif. (Aleah Fajardo/Special to S.F. Examiner)

With the approval of two indefinite pilot programs Thursday, California regulators are setting boundaries before autonomous vehicles flood the streets.

At its Thursday meeting in San Francisco, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) a unanimously adopted two pilot programs to regulate self-driving cars, to the formally-noted objection of companies developing the technology. In being the first to begin setting rules beyond testing, the state is establishing a model for other states and local jurisdictions that will eventually have to make similar decisions.

“Autonomous vehicles have tremendous potential to improve safety, accessibility, and quality of life,” said CPUC Commissioner Carla Peterman. “However, it’s still potential.”

One pilot program somewhat defeats the purpose of self-driving cars by allowing companies to operate them with a driver, also known as drivered AV passenger service. As long as a designated Transportation Charter-Party Carrier (TCP) such as Lyft has a testing permit, it can add the autonomous cars to its fleet of equipment.

The second pilot program is the one where rideshare companies and passengers will feel the difference. It allows the autonomous car to transport passengers without a driver as long as the company has driverless testing permits issued by the California DMV and abides by freshly established rules.

Most notably, companies cannot charge passengers for rides, shuttle people to or from an airport that hasn’t explicitly allowed it, or split fares the way pooled ridesharing cars does in regular cars.

Each driverless car must have 30 days of on-road testing, although the proposal first required 90-days of testing. Proof of regular inspections and comprehensive data on the car’s operations — where, when, for how long, miles traveled, communications and more — is required.

Of course, companies developing driverless cars had some objections, including the need to keep its technology under wraps and away from competition. The proposal noted that several of them also felt that the commission’s regulation was premature, especially since they can’t charge passengers during the testing phase.

Not charging passengers encourages mindful, critical feedback from the public, commissioners said. Companies are also required to submit a plan for how they will abide by these rules.

In the official petition to alter the pilot programs, Cruise argued that the Public Utilities Commission didn’t have the authority to set rules during the DMV testing phase and protested against the barring of passenger service during testing. The company was also particularly keen to keep financial reporting out of public knowledge.

Lyft offered its own proposal: bring in autonomous vehicles to existing ridesharing regulation and allow such cars to be considered a “personal vehicle” of its drivers. But the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency, San Francisco International Airport, and Los Angeles Department of Transportation were among many that begged to differ, the proposal noted.

The California DMV began providing permits in April that allow autonomous vehicles to be truly driverless. Just before those permits took effect, Uber halted self-driving operations in March after an autonomous car with a driver fatally hit a woman in Tempe, Ariz.

In a preliminary investigation released in May, the National Transportation Safety Board found that the car detected 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg six seconds before striking her. But the car did not stop, as its emergency brake system had been disabled.

Commissioners emphasized public safety and equity as a focus of the pilot programs, which immediately went into effect. Though there is no set end date, Commissioner Liane Randolph, who proposed the decision and weighed the differing perspectives, said they will use the information to establish permanent rules in early 2019.

Another commissioner, Martha Guzman Aceves, encouraged companies to broaden its passenger base to all types of demographics so that the commission will “have actual representative data” when establishing long-term regulations.

“It should really reflect the diversity of the state,” Guzman Aceves said. “We do want to learn from these pilots.”

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