When his son turns 16 in three-and-a-half years, Chris Urmson of Google's driverless car project doesn't want to take him to the DMV for a driver's license.
Maybe that's a personal anecdote about the future of driving in which Urmson and his family would like to live, one where driverless cars have made licenses obsolete. But the Googler might as well be referring to his own frustration with the DMV, something from which he hopes to spare us all.
Far from instant results, Google is currently experiencing the agency's famously lackadaisical bureaucracy. State DMV regulations for driverless vehicles have been long-delayed, and the AP reports in the Chronicle that the tech company is growing impatient
"Our team is concerned about the delay," read a revealing invitation from Google to state officials for a conference call last December, released only under a public records act request. With no federal regulations in place, a set of precedent-setting rules was due on January first — nearly a year ago.
Some of the questions at hand: Do driverless cars need steering wheels? Do they need pedals, even? Google doesn't think so, citing its own research that questions whether a startled driver grabbing the wheel in a difficult situation could possibly operate the vehicle safely. Over 2.2 million miles of testing, Google reports that its cars have been involved in 17 collisions but that none has been the fault of the cars or their software (instead, error-prone human drivers in other vehicles were to blame).
Earlier this year, a Google program manager went so far as to call the DMV unqualified to regulate the new autonomous technology. "The DMV is not in the best position to evaluate the safety of any one of these product," he said. Safety is built into the product from day one. It's something that is organic to what we do." Google nominated itself for the job of regulating safety, which, nice try.
While it's entirely likely that the DMV is indeed out of its depth in evaluating the new, complex technology and its attendant questions, Google and others might be dragging their feet as well. The company and rival automakers haven't agreed to develop a system with which to share safety data for fear of spilling trade secrets.
Google is reportedly pushing hardest among them for regulations, which might indicate it sees itself at an advantage over its rival. The company owns 73 of the 98 test vehicles that California's DMV has granted permission to publicly, and has now expanded its testing from to relatively regulation-free Texas.
"California wants to take its time and do this properly," professor Susan Shaheen with UC Berkeley's Transportation Sustainability Research Center told the Mercury News last month. "They're taking this relatively slowly compared to what Google wants to see. One reason it's going slowly is because California deems that this could be modeled across the United States."
"We're very excited about the technology," a DMV spokesperson said. "We're happy that a lot of things are happening in California and we don't want to lose that... We just have to be careful because we want to get it right."
But Google's bubble-shaped two-seater prototype won't go anywhere too fast at a top speed of 25 mph so far. In fact, one such vehicle was recently pulled over in Mountain View for driving too slow. Could rushing legislation be putting the driverless cart before the horse?