Meet the Regulators Trying to Make Sure Self-Driving Cars Are Safe

The California DMV has the unenviable job of regulating a new cadre of artificial intelligences that are directing 2,000-pound vehicles around the streets. How do they keep us safe without impeding the development of these vehicles?
Google's proposed driverless vehicle, unveiled Tuesday, May 27 (Google)

This week, the California Department of Motor Vehicles released its final regulations for the testing of autonomous vehicles on the roads of the state. They create a process for companies like Google, Nissan, Mercedes Benz, and the rest of the automakers to test out cars that can drive themselves under certain circumstances. 

By the end of the year, the DMV will issue an even more important set of regulations that will govern how the public can operate these cars. 

This is not an easy task, nor one that the regulators asked for. When the California legislature passed Senate Bill 1298 (Vehicle Code Section 38750), they tasked the agency with creating rules that would both encourage the development of autonomous vehicles while protecting the public.

"The State of California, which presently does not prohibit or specifically regulate the operation of autonomous vehicles, desires to encourage the current and future development, testing, and operation of autonomous vehicles on the public roads of the state," the bill reads. "The state seeks to avoid interrupting these activities while at the same time creating appropriate rules intended to ensure that the testing and operation of autonomous vehicles in the state are conducted in a safe manner."

Which sounds reasonable. But how do you create "appropriate rules" that ensure safety without "interrupting" or slowing the development of the technology?

There isn't official federal guidance that the state can lean on. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has released a "preliminary" policy statement, but won't have real regulations ready for years. 

In most other safety issues, the manufacturers certify that their goods meet the safety regulations set by NHTSA (or as people say it, "Nitsa"). The state of California (or any other) doesn't get involved. 

California's DMV has it particularly tough. The state has taken the regulatory lead in so many different areas through the years, by dint of its large population and innovative bureaucrats like Art Rosenfeld in energy efficiency, so other states are looking to California. And, of course, Google and many car makers are conducting a big chunk of their research in and around Silicon Valley. So the internal pressure is high, the external pressure is high, and...

They have to figure out how to test the safe functioning of complex artificial intelligence systems commanding 2,000 pound vehicles that already kill 32,000 people under human control!

Given that self-driving cars have the medium-term potential to create all kinds of changes in the way that Americans, at least, move around, the three people at the DMV leaving the charge are some of the most important people shaping our collective future. 

Inside a Nissan autonomous vehicle while testing (Nissan).

Regulators, Mount Up

Within the DMV, there are two co-sponsors of the autonomous regulation project: Bernard Soriano, deputy director, and Stephanie Dougherty, chief of strategic planning. The third member of the triumvirate is Brian Soublet, assistant chief counsel at the DMV. 

I was able to speak with Soriano and Soublet at length this week, and they walked me through how the DMV is approaching this task.

"We're kind of in a bind because every vehicle that's on the roadway has to meet Federal motor vehicle safety standards," Soriano said. But there are no Federal regulations or Federal standards for autonomous technologies.

"NITSA is the one who develops the regulations for safety devices on vehicles, but—they admit this—they are years away, years away, from developing regulations for autonomous vehicles."

"So there is also a push at the state level—various states—to come up with regulations because the companies want to come out with the products," Soriano said. "If there are no federal regulations, they are turning to the states, asking, 'What are the states going to allow?' So California is one of a handful states that have passed legislation. We do regulations a lot, but we've never done regulations with regard to safety devices on vehicles."

So not only are they dealing with the novel problems of autonomous vehicles, but they've had to come up with solutions in an area that they aren't used to regulating. 

"This is the first time a state has had to license the testing of specific technology. Usually manufacturers just test their stuff and the state isn't involved," Soublet said. "So, when this bill got passed, it became, 'How do we do this—and how do we do this in less than two years?'"

How to Figure Out How to Regulate Autonomous Vehicles in Two Years or Less

The DMV put together a steering committee composed of representatives from other state agencies like the California Highway Patrol, Caltrans, the California State Transportation Agency, the Department of Insurance, and finally the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Notably, their first liaison when they formed the committee was the NHTSA's former deputy administrator, Ron Medford. He's now Google's safety director for the Self-Driving Car Program.

Along with the governmental partners, they contracted with UC Berkeley's Institute of Transportation Studies and Stanford's Center for Automotive Research. They talked with people at Carnegie Mellon, where a lot of this research took place. And they asked for input from people within the automotive industry but who are not affiliated with any particular company, like software engineers who'd helped them understand previous problems like the Prius's anti-lock brake software problems

They also developed relationships with all the different automakers, suppliers like Bosch, and, of course, Google, trying to understand the potential and limitations of all these different research efforts. "We've gotten insight into what [the different companies'] strategies are. So we kind of have an idea about what they'll be doing," Soriano said. "Of course, we don't know the entire picture. They've only let us in on a little of what they're going to do. But with that knowledge, we have to start crafting the regulations."

At the same time, it's part of their remit to ensure that the motoring public is safe. 

"A huge part of our work group and our statewide steering committee is working with the California Highway Patrol," Soublet said. "And we do get concerns from them: How are you going to make sure who is responsible if violations occur? How is an officer going to know if a vehicle is autonomous? How is an officer going to interact with a vehicle that's autonomous?"

So, I asked them, how do you know if the cars are safe? The fundamental thing is that there are these algorithms making decisions, and it is really hard to evaluate if they will make the right ones, especially under novel conditions. How do we know that when an autonomous vehicle approaches an uncontrolled left (the kind of turn without a green arrow), it is going to make a good decision? 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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