California Companies Cautious to Receive Fully-Autonomous Testing Approval

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【Summary】Only a couple of companies have put in their applications to test fully-self-driving vehicles in California.

Original Vineeth Joel Patel    May 05, 2018 9:15 AM PT
California Companies Cautious to Receive Fully-Autonomous Testing Approval

Earlier this February, the California DMV boldly put new rules in place that would allow companies and automakers to test vehicles without a driver behind the wheel. The rules required testers to have a "remote" human backup that could take control of the vehicle if an issue occurred. The state's new rules started on April 2. 

Waymo Takes A Risky Leap

While the rules made California the ideal location to test driverless vehicles, only a few companies have applied for the necessary permit. Waymo became the first one, applying for the new self-driving testing permit in the middle of April. The technology company claimed that it would be testing its autonomous machines near its headquarters in Silicon Valley. 

Besides Waymo, it doesn't look like a lot of other companies and automakers are chomping at the bits to test driverless vehicles in the state. According to U.S. News, only two companies have actually applied for a permit. Only one company, reportedly, completed a filled out application, which we're guessing is Waymo. 

"I think the industry, realizes, collectively, they have to be very cautious, because one bad actor can ruin it for everybody," said Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. 

The decision to play it safe is a smart one in light of recent incidents involving semi-autonomous vehicles. In May, one of Uber's self-driving vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. After the incident, Arizona's Governor suspended Uber's self-driving tests in the state and Uber made the decision to end its operations in California.  

Another incident involving a Tesla Model X and a lane divider on a highway probably swayed some companies and automakers to take things cautiously, as well. The incidents prompted Wiedenmeier to send a letter to the California DMV, urging the department to reconsider its permit until the accidents were fully investigated. 

Waymo Self-Driving Chrysler 2.jpg

Why Play It Safe?

"For people who bike, we know this is particularly an issue because we know as objects on our street, people on bikes are a little bit harder to recognize and predict," he said. "And that's where the state DMV needs to step in. Whoever comes out on top in the race to perfect autonomous vehicle technology is going to make billions of dollar." 

In his letter to DMV Director Jean Shiomoto, Wiedenmeier stated that there is "no benefit to the public in rushing this process." He specifically points towards bikers and pedestrians, as "people who walk and bike in San Francisco would be put in the greatest danger if unsafe technology is rushed to fully autonomous testing without understanding any potentially fatal flaws." 

Wiedenmeier does have a point. Earlier last month, one of Cruise Automation's, General Motor's self-driving company, self-driving Chevrolet Bolts received a ticket for failing to yield to a pedestrian. While GM believed the ticket was unmerited, the police officer at the scene didn't agree. We're going to have to wait to see if GM appeals the ticket and how things pan out in court. 

A representative from the California DMV confirmed that the department received the letter, claiming that it "appreciates feedback on our autonomous vehicle regulations." It also stressed that "safety is our top priority." 

"The promise of autonomous vehicle technology long-term is a dramatic reduction in traffic collision. And that's good news for people who bike," said Wiedenmeier. "We need to make sure that while that's happening, that the safety of people who bike and walk, really all road users, is paramount – that we're doing the testing and deployment in as safe as a way as possible and that we're holding companies to a high standard when regulators are granting these permits." 

When California was allowing automakers and companies to apply for permits that allowed them to test vehicles with a driver behind the wheel, the DMV department claims it received 50 applications. Under the original permit requirements, the DMV disseminates annual reports on quality and extent of testing. 

Waymo Self-Driving Chrysler 3.jpg

Waymo Leads The Way Forward For Autonomy

Waymo, which came out and stated that it had signed up to test driverless vehicles in California, had claimed that it covered more than 352,000 miles in California between December 2016 and November 2017. That, as U.S. News point out, is well ahead of the competition in the state. Over the same period, GM which came in second place, logged 132,000 miles. 

California won't be the first place that Waymo will test its self-driving machines. The company has been testing its autonomous minivans in Phoenix and announced plans to spread to Atlanta at the beginning of the year. While Waymo may be one of the more dominant forces in the auto industry when it comes to autonomous vehicles, other companies should follow suit in the near future. 

"I think we definitely will see more companies applying for that driverless permit here in California, but it probably will just take a little bit of time," said Elliot Katz, co-founder, chief strategy officer and head of legal and policy at Phantom Auto autonomous vehicle teleoperations company. "Obviously, the tragic accident in Arizona probably played a role or tempered a bit certain companies' plans in moving forward." 

The Public Remain Skeptical

Katz knows what he's talking about, as Phantom Auto provides a safety net to companies that are testing autonomous machines without a driver behind the wheel. Phantom Auto's teleoperations company helps operators remotely take control of a driverless car if a necessary situation arises. 

Katz believes there are a few issues that are holding companies and automakers back from applying to test autonomous vehicles in California. The recent incidents involving autonomous vehicles is one, but another is public acceptance of the tech. 

"Technological issues aside, I believe that one of the biggest barriers to deployment here is public acceptance," said Katz. "People aren't fully on board with completely accepting that their lives are going to be in the hands of a machine." 

A recent survey involving Californians revealed that 58 percent of people living in the state don't want autonomous vehicles on the road. It's a position that resonates with the rest of the country, as drivers aren't completely behind self-driving cars at the moment. 

In light of the current situation, it will be interesting to see how many other companies and automakers apply for a fully-autonomous permit in California. 

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