Autonomous car makers riding the brakes on California driverless test permits

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ByJonathan Bloom KGO logo
Tuesday, April 3, 2018
Autonomous car makers riding the brakes on CA driverless test permits
Monday was supposed to be a big deal in the world of self-driving cars, but it turns out it's not -- and experts say that could be an even bigger deal.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Monday was supposed to be a big deal in the world of self-driving cars, but it turns out it's not -- and experts say that could be an even bigger deal.

When the California DMV began accepting applications for the next phase of autonomous car testing, April 2 was the day it had planned to begin issuing permits to test without a driver in the car. Companies would still need to have a human monitoring the car from a remote location, able to take over in a split second to avert an accident.

RELATED: CNET executive editor discusses push for self-driving cars

Mountain View-based Phantom Auto demonstrated its remote driving technology for us several weeks ago -- delivering near-instantaneous streaming video to drivers sitting at workstations with steering wheels and pedals inside the company's office.

"Even if (an autonomous car) just gets too cautious and stops in the middle of the road, you want a human being to be able to step in and get the car out of that situation," said Antuan Goodwin, reviews editor for CNET's Roadshow.

Though we had planned to ask Goodwin about all the companies that were just issued permits to test without drivers, we ran into a slight problem: There are none.

"From the sort of core players in the self-driving car game, you're seeing a whole lot of just stepping back, slowing down and reassessing," Goodwin said.

It comes on the heels of the fatal crash in which a self-driving Uber struck and killed a woman walking her bike in Arizona. Uber announced it would stop testing on public roads in North America, and opted not to renew its California road testing permit. But Uber isn't the only company changing its tune. Goodwin said some of it amounts to public relations.

RELATED: DMV to give driverless cars the green light

"You don't want to be seen as rushing. You want to be the first to get it right," he said.

One expert who's studied self-driving car technology for decades believes the claims of a driverless future that's right around the corner are a bit overblown.

"I think it's very unlikely that we're going to see significant fleets operating without drivers for quite a long time," said Steve Shladover, research engineer for UC Berkeley's PATH institute for advanced transportation technology.

Shladover said that, among other things, researchers are still wrestling with how to replace human eye contact and other non-verbal communication between road users.

"That's gonna be challenging when we have a vehicle without a driver," he said. "How do you, as the pedestrian or the bicyclist, know whether that vehicle actually sees you?"

RELATED: California's first driverless bus hits the road in San Ramon

Despite the industry mantra that robotic cars will eliminate human error and make the roads safer for everyone, Shladover insists there's no data showing a robot can drive more safely than a person -- and he guesses there won't be for quite some time.

"The most difficult thing is to get an autonomous vehicle to drive as safely as people drive today," he said. "When we look at the traffic safety statistics, we see people are actually incredibly safe drivers."

To date, the California DMV has only received one application for driverless testing -- and said it will not release the name of the applicant until it verifies that the application is complete and ready to be reviewed.

In a statement to ABC7 News, a DMV spokesperson said:

"Effective April 2, 2018, the DMV has the authority to issue permits for driverless testing or deployment of autonomous vehicles. When an application is received, it will be thoroughly reviewed. The Department will not approve any permits until it is clear that the applicant has met all of the safe operation requirements set forth in law and in the regulations."

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