California: No politicians or bad drivers in Google’s autonomous cars

Latest US state to welcome robotic cars insists on trained drivers behind the wheel
Google's self-driving Lexus on a street in Mountain View, CA

You might not have confidence in your elected representatives to steer the nation in the right direction. California doesn’t even trust them behind the wheel of a self-driving car.

In documents obtained by Stuff under freedom of information legislation, Google tried (and failed) to persuade regulators in California to permit politicians and policymakers to take the driver’s seat of its robotic cars while they navigate public highways.

“Our experience has shown that demonstrations for key decision makers are critical to impart the true capabilities and promise of autonomous vehicles,” wrote Ron Medford, the director of safety for Google’s self-driving program. “There is no substitute for the first-hand experience of sitting in the driver’s seat of a test vehicle and experiencing how the technology responds to the complexities of the public road environment.”

Under Californian rules, experimental self-driving vehicles must have a trained test driver actively monitoring their operation, ready to take over immediately if anything should go wrong. As well as having a clean licence in the state, those drivers cannot ever have been responsible for a road accident that killed or injured anyone.

One smash-up isn't so bad

Google's prototype self-driving pod car, with no steering wheel or brake

Google tried to loosen this rule, too. “The requirements should not prohibit people who have been involved in minor accidents from serving as test drivers,” wrote Medford. He suggested that as long as a driver had not been responsible for more than one accident resulting in serious injury or death within the last three years, they should be allowed to qualify.

Officials at California’s Department of Motor Vehicles were having none of it. “The requirements for a test driver mirror the definition of a ‘good driver’ found in the [state’s] insurance code,” they replied sternly, “The citizens of California have made a determination that people who meet the criteria specified are the safest drivers. Google will have a test facility where they can demonstrate the technology to dignitaries.”

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