By Andrew Del-Colle, September 18, 2014
On Tuesday, Audi became the first car manufacturer to receive a California autonomous car driving permit (as of this writing, Mercedes-Benz and Google have also filed for and received permits). The permit was presented to Audi by Sen. Alex Padilla, who signed the state's new autonomous vehicle laws that went into effect Tuesday; the law will allow for the legal testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads.
According to Brad Stertz, Audi's corporate communications manager, Audi has two cars registered on the permit, both capable of Level 3 autonomous driving, the official classification for a car that can handle many of the driving responsibilities but isn't fully autonomous (Level 4.)
"We had been doing testing in California because there were no regulations in place," Stertz says. "But now that the state enacted laws on Sept. 16, it was crucial for us to get the permit right away because our Electronics Research Lab in Belmont, Calif., is a key player in the development of our technology globally."
We got a look at the actual permit today, and its wording pretty much reiterates the new state law. Someone must be in the car and able to take over all functions at all times, and there must be a clear mechanism for engaging and disengaging autonomous mode. But there are a few nuggets worth exploring.
One is the specific mention of a visual indicator that clearly signals to the driver when autonomous mode is engaged. Making sure the driver is completely familiar with the technology and understands when the car is under machine control versus human control is something carmakers must get absolutely right. Consider what GM is doing with its Super Cruise technology, which allows the car to take over steering and pedal operations in certain highway conditions. Earlier this month GM announced that Super Cruise will be available in select 2017 model year cars. Those cars will likely have the same indicator that we experienced when testing Super Cruise—a large light bar on the top of the steering wheel that indicates when the car is in control (green), when the driver needs to take over (red), and when the driver has control (blue). Hard to miss that. Oh, and it issues an audible alert as well.
Something else to consider: According to the permit, should the driver be unable to take control of the vehicle during an emergency or system failure while autonomous mode is engaged, "the autonomous vehicle shall be capable of coming to a complete stop." Pretty important! But also a little scary when you think about a car just stopping on the highway. After all, the permit doesn't say the car must be able to safely pull off the road and come to a complete stop. And in reality, that's probably asking a lot for now. It's a reminder that if we want to test autonomous vehicles in the public domain seriously, we have to understand there will be risks. It reminds me of something interesting Chris Urmon, head of Google's self-driving car project, said about insurance and autonomous cars when I interviewed him two years ago:
"As we develop technology that is self-driving, we're responsible for that. If we're telling someone riding in one of our vehicles that they're safe to not pay attention to driving, then during that phase that we've kinda told them that's okay, then we're responsible for that action. I think it'll be quite clear. I think in the longer term that there are things we can do that will feed the evolution of this technology in the same way.
"When the first airplanes flew, there was a balance on the liability that an airline has in events of accidents or lost luggage or whatever. Then as a society we said, 'Well, there are risks inherent to air travel and we want to further the adoption of air travel so we're going to introduce legislation that puts the limits on the liability so that we encourage this industry to blossom.'
"I can see down the line that something like that might happen because we'll look at the societal benefit of this technology, the freedom for people to move that don't, the reduction in congestion, the increase in safety, the happiness and wellbeing brought by the fact that you didn't spend an hour cursing life in commuting and we'll say, 'You know what? It's worth kind of defraying the risk across a broader base than just the manufacturers of this technology, assuming they meet some kind of bar." No, I don't think [Insurance] will be the thing that stops this from happening.'"
Lastly, it's worth noting that the permit calls for an extra device—separate from the data recorders already required in cars—to specifically monitor and record the autonomous systems and their sensors. On top of that, the information must remain accessible for three years. As optimistic as lawmakers and auto manufacturers are about the potential for autonomous vehicles, they also know that one bad accident could stymie progress and reaffirm the public's worst fears. In case an accident does happen—and eventually, it will—at least they'll know exactly what went wrong.
Besides, they'll need that information to know whom to blame.