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California Prepares for the Future of Driverless Cars

Jul 28, 2013

Credit Flickr user ScottSchrantz / Creative Commons License /

What once sounded like the stuff of science fiction is now reality on the drawing board. Rapid advancements are being made in the field of driverless cars. And as Katie Orr reports from Sacramento, California is working to get out ahead of the curve. 

At a Ford Dealership in Northern Sacramento, Fleet Sales Manager Obeth Carlos Davila drives a new Ford Explorer off the lot. It’s this year’s version of the car of the future.

Davila takes his foot of the gas and his hands off the wheel and watches the car steer 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. I’m mean, sounds good, who knows, we might have flying cars in about ten years,” says Davila.

“We’ve got hands full with autonomous vehicles right now,” says Bernard Soriano. He’s the 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 says, 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. But January 2015 we will be done with the regulations that will define the operation of these vehicles on our roadways,” says Soriano.

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

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

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 collaborate on making the vehicles a reality.

Conference organizer Steve Shladover is with the University of California and works with the state to ease traffic congestion. Shladover is also assisting in the development of driverless car regulations. He says California could become a national model.

“The legislature has given us a really daunting task to come up with a set of regulations. 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,” says Shladover.

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 (Swe-DIN-ski) is concerned about the jobs that could be lost when driverless cars hit the road. Truck drivers, taxi drivers, but not car salesmen.

“I’d still sell cars! I would sell the driverless cars to people. And there’d probably a large mark up on them if you don’t have to drive them yourself, so,” says Swedensky. He may have to wait a bit for that extra cash. Experts estimate it will be at least 20-20 before driverless cars hit the show room floor.