Autonomous Vehicles Are Coming, and California Isn’t Ready

Seleta Reynolds, General Manager of LADOT, testifying to the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. Image: Screengrab from CATV
Seleta Reynolds, General Manager of LADOT, testifying to the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee. Image: Screengrab from CATV

Yesterday, the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee held a hearing on autonomous vehicles to explore the role of the legislature in the adoption and regulation of this rapidly approaching technology.

The basic message was: California better get on it. AVs are coming, like it or not, and they will either bring great things or they will make everything a whole lot worse, and a lot more unfair, than they are now.

But California might not have a say at all if the federal American Vision for Safer Transportation Through the Advancement of Revolutionary Technology, or AV START Act—just passed by the House—gets through the U.S. Senate without major amendments. According to Seleta Reynolds, the General Manager of L.A.’s Department of Transportation, the current wording of that bill would preempt state and local authorities from enacting or enforcing any laws or regulations pertaining to autonomous vehicles.

Reynolds, testifying to the committee, said that as currently worded the federal act would prohibit states and cities from adopting, maintaining, or enforcing “any rules or standards regulating the design, construction, or performance of AV systems with respect to safety, data recording, cybersecurity, human-machine interface, crash-worthiness, post-crash behavior, or automation function.” It would also prohibit states from promulgating any rules on any other issue regarding AVs, including requiring any of them to be electric or subjecting them to VMT fees. It would nullify S.B. 1298, which in 2012 called for the California Department of Motor Vehicles to create safety rules for testing AVs in the state, and it could potentially nullify the rules that resulted from that law as well as prevent the DMV from updating them—although they sorely need updating, and the DMV is in the process of doing so.

The act, said Reynolds, “jeopardizes the state’s ability to regulate safety, congestion, and environmental benefits of AVs. Preemption is a feature, not a bug.”

Yesterday’s hearing was called to help inform state legislators about issues that they will need to address soon. The DMV just submitted an update to its regulations on testing AVs to the Office on Administrative Law and is expecting to be able to put the new rules into effect on April 1. They will cover requirements for testing fully autonomous vehicles, with no driver present, on public roads in California.

The DMV’s focus is on safety, but there are many other issues that need to be considered as well. Panelists testifying at the hearing brought up, for starters: congestion and greenhouse gas emissions; job loss from increased automation; transportation finance; insurance; new infrastructure needed while maintaining current infrastructure; the potential impacts of reduced parking fees both from parking meters and citations; the potential for reduced citations and accompanying fees, and the impact of that on courts and police and fire services; and the need for data and transparency.

Whether AVs help or hurt current work on these issues will depend on policies created now.

Also needing discussion: equity. UC Davis Professor Daniel Sperling warned that if left to market forces, AV technology will be directed towards individual ownership, which he said would be “disastrous.” That scenario “would benefit mostly rich people, who could commute much longer distances, send empty cars to pick up pizza, have empty cars circle around the block instead of paying for parking,” he said. “We’d have to deal with a new category of vehicles—zero occupancy vehicles.”

Sperling focused on the potential for AVs to transform the transportation system by supporting carpools and microtransit options that could serve transit—which could then focus on better service in heavily used corridors. “We need to create choice, and to move away from car monoculture,” he said. Incentives for pooled services could make it cheaper for travelers, for society in terms of emissions and time lost to congestion, and for the state in terms of infrastructure costs.

“Pooling means giving up car ownership, but it also means more choice, less costs, less congestion, less road infrastructure,” he said. “We need to figure out how to create incentives because people are not naturally inclined to share.”

The policy questions are urgent, said Sperling. “It will be too late soon if we don’t get started now.”

Reynolds, from LADOT, emphasized similar points. Although AVs “present big opportunities, and can improve mobility, equity, and accessibility, which will in turn yield profound impacts on land use, funding, commerce, and communication,” she warned, “Technology must serve our cities, and not the other way around.”

It is possible, said Reynolds, to regulate AVs “so that mobility benefits transcend class, race, age, and ability,” but those benefits “will not be realized if government does not play an active role, and fundamentally change its approach and posture to the private sector.”

Another warning was sounded by Rosemary Shahan of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety. “Unfortunately, the impending lack of federal oversight and cut-throat competition to be first in offering autonomous vehicles threatens to not only result in unnecessary fatalities and injuries, but it may undermine the public’s confidence in the promising new technology that is emerging, and harm the businesses that are placing risky bets in hopes of huge returns,” she said.

She read from a long and frightening list of deceptions by automakers in the U.S. that included concealing defects, sidestepping recalls, and deceiving regulators, perpetrated by Toyota, Chrysler, General Motors, Volkswagen, Honda, Subaru, Ford, Tesla, and Uber.

“The message from Washington is that we should trust that the auto manufacturers, which have a long history of engaging in widespread illegal activity, concealing safety defects, failing to report fatalities and injuries, and defrauding the public, this time will somehow change their stripes, and ‘voluntarily’ get it right,” she said.

She recommended strong regulations for California’s autonomous vehicle testing oversight, including requiring AVs to pass a “driver’s test” before allowing them to be deployed or sold to the public.

She also warned about potential issues with the sale of second-hand AVs, whose new owners may not be aware of limitations or restrictions on the vehicles’ self-driving capabilities.

A representative of General Motors, testifying after Shahan, didn’t seem to have heard what she said. He made a series of statements that he seemed to believe were basic truths:

  • “AVs don’t get distracted; they see where they are at all times”
  • “Their safety is universally recognized”
  • “Safety is our top priority”

He said that General Motors is confident “that we can deploy AVs at commercial scale by 2019,” which is a lot sooner than others in the room seemed to be prepared for. But, he complained, current regulations are preventing that, because they require certain things like airbags in the steering column. But General Motors wants to build a vehicle with no driver equipment at all—no brake pedals, no steering column, no mirrors. Therefore GM can’t meet the requirements as written.

“Obviously,” he said, “the car is aware of what’s going on around it. It doesn’t need rear or side-vision mirrors. These [cars] are designed to never have a human being behind a wheel.”

But it was clear from the hearing that California is not quite ready for this yet.

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  • Vooch


  • aarond

    If you look at the fine print of the currently proposed ones they are at best going to be remotely operated – this is what the state has to consider. This is where the first round of accidents and labor-related litigation is going to be borne from, especially if auto companies try doing something heinous like letting operators pilot vehicles from their phones or desktops rather than from a central operations center.

    It relates to another problem: a lack of road sensors. If Sacramento *really* wants to get AVs under the muzzle they have to go out and create a whole new road signalling standard themselves, or at least formalize existing standards into policy. This is what the AV market really needs (if one looks at existing AVs available for sale eg tractors) in order to be safe enough for general use.