Proposed California AV Rules Are Too Strict, Companies Say

Companies looking to launch pilots under California’s new driverless car program think the rules proposed for them are fine — except for the data reporting requirements, the vehicle testing period, the ban on sharing, and the fact that they wouldn’t be able to charge for rides.

At a largely cordial hearing before the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) last week, Lyft, Waymo, Uber and other companies took issue with a lot of what the agency plans to demand from operators before they start ferrying the public around.

But some local regulators said the permitting rules don’t go far enough.

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles approved testing and use of autonomous vehicles with no safety driver earlier this year, setting the stage for what could become the world’s largest AV testing ground. But before driverless cars to start serving the public in pilot deployments, they will also need approval from the CPUC, which regulates transportation providers such as ride-hailing companies and limo operators.

At the May 22 hearing in San Francisco, prospective service providers said the commission’s proposed rules might invade riders’ privacy, make tests unrealistic and discourage companies from even trying to roll out driverless cars in the state.

Speakers from the industry sounded a familiar alarm over the CPUC’s plans: If regulations hinder successful trials of AVs, that could delay life-saving benefits.

“Autonomous technology really holds the promise of an entirely new safety paradigm,” said Mark Rosekind, chief safety innovation officer at startup Zoox and former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It could both help to prevent traffic fatalities — there were more than 3,600 in California last year — and better protect passengers when crashes occur, he said.

“I think California could see companies leave the state, or not come to the state, based on the fact that they’re not able to exercise what’s fully allowed under the DMV regulations,” said Laura Bisesto, a senior public policy manager at Lyft. Her company’s strategy is to make its own ride-hailing platform available to multiple AV companies while also launching its own driverless cars.

The CPUC should allow charging for rides, both as an incentive to get companies to start pilots and to make the tests more realistic, Bisesto and others said. But that idea worries some regulators, including the San Francisco County Transit Authority, who said revenue-generating pilots might turn into de facto commercial launches. Companies should be subject to a fee and an end date on each pilot to prevent this, Senior Transportation Planner Michelle Beaulieu said.

Rosekind and others slammed the CPUC’s plan to require each individual AV to be road-tested for 90 days before it can pick up passengers. That rule would put extra cars on the road for no good reason, they said. Once operators have built or configured a certain model of car to provide driverless rides, there’s no need to put every unit through that much testing. CPUC should harmonize its rules with those of the DMV, which doesn’t require any testing period for individual vehicles for public use, Rosekind said.

CPUC would also go beyond the DMV by making AV ride companies share too much data from cars that carry passengers, companies said. Detailed data on things like miles traveled could reveal valuable company information to rivals, they said. Plus, the commission would require recordings of all conversations between riders and on-call operators.

Those conversations could include confidential information, including a rider’s destination and the purpose of their trip, said Sam Houshower, senior counsel to Uber’s self-driving group.

The recordings might even include a passenger in a medical emergency telling an operator about their condition in order get help to the scene, said Nadia Marquez, senior U.S. government relations manager at GM Cruise. Even if that information were anonymized, forcing companies to transcribe, store and transmit the data would be a burden and could open the ride company and even the CPUC to liability, she said.

Tim Elder of the National Federation of the Blind said the commission should require companies to work with disability groups to make sure testing accounts for their interests.

“We’ve got thousands of blind people who would love to participate in these testing programs,” Elder said.

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