California’s Legislature set out in 2012 “to encourage the current and future development, testing, and operation of autonomous vehicles on the public roads of the state”—but now, the state is poised effectively to ban such cars from the roads and highways. The Department of Motor Vehicles held a public workshop in Sacramento in late January and another in Los Angeles in early February to discuss draft regulations for autonomous vehicles. Though the rules won’t be finalized before the end of the year, the news so far isn’t good—for the cars. Under the cover of “consumer protection,” the DMV proposes to limit the rollout of autonomous technology by, among other things, barring its commercial use, precluding truly autonomous operation, and prohibiting private sale and ownership of self-driving cars.
The DMV is best known for ensuring that 16-year-olds are minimally competent behind the wheel of traditional motor vehicles; it has no particular expertise in evaluating the appropriateness of vehicle-safety requirements. But that hasn’t stopped the department from imposing an excess of caution on the approval of autonomous-vehicle technology. The idea of cars or trucks operating without steering wheels or human drivers is exciting to entrepreneurs and commuters. Google’s autonomous car would have no steering wheel, or even pedals. A delivery service such as Google Express would likely roll out without drivers. Uber is researching how to replace drivers as well. Shipping and logistics companies also envision a future when goods move from harbors to warehouses in autonomous trucks. More than a dozen disabled activists appeared at the hearing in Los Angeles to urge the DMV to allow purely autonomous vehicles, saying they would be a boon for people, such as the blind, who are incapable of driving right now. But the idea is terrifying to bureaucrats and regulators. The DMV’s smothering—and costly—approach will likely become state policy, squelching such innovations.
Keeping driverless cars off the streets is one thing; why ban their sale entirely? DMV Chief Information Officer Bernard Soriano said last month that because the proposed rules would place a three-year limit on the use of approved vehicles, buyers likely wouldn’t receive much benefit over such a short period of ownership. Furthermore, the DMV believes that by prohibiting sales, the rules would protect early adopters of the technology from being stuck with vehicles that are later deemed unsafe by the department. Finally, the DMV maintains that leased vehicles, which remain under the ownership of the vehicle manufacturer, will be easier to collect data from.
The first of the rationales is the most compelling, but only compared with the others. With only three years before retirement, a purchased vehicle’s value—much of it traditionally recouped in its resale—would be destroyed by these regulations. The rule would shift a greater financial burden onto manufacturers and all but guarantee that the only people able to afford early vehicles, even by leasing them, will be wealthy. If anything, the three-year sunset requirement is itself a constructive ban on ownership, which makes the DMV’s second rationale irrelevant. If a small, wealthy segment of the population is aware of the state’s strictures and doesn’t mind temporarily possessing a vehicle that’s doomed by law, it can certainly afford the risk. The state’s supposed desire to protect these people from loss seems at once unnecessary and disingenuous.
The DMV’s third and final rationale—compliance with reporting requirements—is even more poorly conceived. As with every vehicle sold today, the manufacturer, for better or worse, controls the technology used and the data it produces. When you buy or lease a car, you sign a contract that says so explicitly. So the DMV would have access to any safety data it likes, regardless of whether the “owner” is the manufacturer or the end user.
Without question, prohibiting private sale and ownership of self-driving cars and trucks would destroy value and raise costs. Google has already threatened to take its autonomous vehicle business elsewhere. Given that outcome, the DMV’s justifications simply don’t hold up. So why would the DMV push prohibition with such gusto? Why would the state pursue policies to discourage the adoption of vehicles that, by virtually all accounts, would be orders of magnitude safer than traditionally operated vehicles? And, how does a department charged with enacting the will of the legislature land so far afield of the legislature’s stated goal of creating a legal framework that promotes autonomous vehicles? Very simply, lawmakers deferred too much authority to a bureaucracy, and California’s motorists will pay the price.