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California Prepares for a Future of Driverless Cars

Steve Jurvetson, Flickr

A Google self-driving car

Steve Jurvetson, Flickr

At a Ford Dealership in Northern Sacramento, Fleet Sales Manager Obeth Carlos Davila drives a new Ford Explorer off the lot. It’s equipped with a self-parking system, and is this year’s version of the car of the future

Davila drives along the road and activates the park- assist system. It directs him to drive slowly forward while it scans the curb for parking spots. It locates a spot and directs Davila to stop and put the car in reverse. He does and then takes his foot off the gas and his hands off the wheel. Davila watches as the car steers itself into a parallel parking space.

A self-parking car is a big step towards a future of self-driving cars. As you watch from the passenger seat there’s some anxiety and some amazement. There’s an urge to grab the spinning steering wheel and brace for impact with the surrounding cars. But again and again the car quickly and smoothly parks itself.

Davila says self-driving cars could catch on, once drivers are comfortable with giving up control.

“But it’s gonna take awhile,” he said. “I’m mean, sounds good, who knows, we might have flying cars in about ten years.”

That though amuses Bernard Soriano.

“We’ve got our hands full with autonomous vehicles right now!” he laughs.

Soriano is Deputy Director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles. California is one of three states with laws allowing for some kind of driverless car. The legislature has directed the DMV to create regulations for them. Soriano said for now, the rules won’t let the public get driverless licenses.

“By the end of this year we hope to have the regulations in place to allow for the different manufactures to test their autonomous vehicles on our roadways,” he said. “By January 2015 we will be done with the regulations that will define the operation of these vehicles on our roadways.”

So who can operate a driverless car? And would the operator have to sit in the driver’s seat? Soriano said there are numerous questions yet to be answered.

“The question of liability is one that just comes to mind immediately,” he said. “I mean, who’s responsible? What happened? Is it the operator if the operator is not actually driving?”

Soriano recently discussed driverless cars with about 300 colleagues at the second annual Road Vehicle Automation conference at Stanford University.  Researchers, manufactures and regulators all gathered to listen to industry leaders like Volkswagen and Google and to collaborate on making the vehicles a reality.



Conference organizer Steve Shladover is with the University of California’s PATH Program, which works with the state to ease traffic congestion. Shladover is also assisting in the development of driverless car regulations. He said California could become a national model.

“The legislature has given us a really daunting task to come up with a set of regulations,” he said. “But at the same time, that’s an opportunity to take a national lead and identify what is the right way of doing this so it can be both safe and help the industry proceed.”

But Shladover says California has a lot to lose if it gets the regulations wrong. For instance, developers could flee to Nevada, which also allows driverless cars.

Back at the Sacramento Ford dealership, salesman Tyler Swedensky is concerned about the jobs that could be lost when driverless cars hit the road. Truck drivers, taxi drivers and delivery drivers could all eventually lose their jobs. But Swedensky isn’t worried about his own job.

“I’d still sell cars! I would sell the driverless cars to people,” he said. “And there’d probably a large mark up on them if you don’t have to drive them yourself!”

Swedensky may have to wait a bit for that extra cash. Experts estimate it will be at least 2020 before driverless cars hit the show room floor.

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