Not So Fast, Google: Autonomous Cars In California Still Need Steering Wheels, Brakes

August 26, 2014

In May of this year, California's Department of Motor Vehicles published safety guidelines aimed at manufacturers of self-driving cars. A few days later, Google unveiled a prototype of its first autonomous car built in-house.

The prototype looked dramatically different from the modified Toyota Prius that Google had been publicly testing for several years. Just as remarkable as its features were the things that the new model lacked -- for example, a steering wheel and brake pedal. Now, according to Cnet, California's DMV has told Google to return those accouterments to their traditional locations so that riders can take "immediate physical control" of the car, if necessary. That and other autonomous vehicle regulations kick in on September 15. 

This isn't a huge setback for Google. After all, the prototypes aren't nearly ready for primetime, they're just being used for tests. Though the control-less models have worked fine on closed tracks, with no accidents to date, they'll eventually be navigating real streets in real traffic, so they'll need to be up to code. In fact, the DMV may tighten up things a bit further next month, when it issues regulations concerning test vehicles on public roads.

In the long run, though, we'd expect the DMV to loosen some of these restrictions. It will undoubtedly take years for regulators and the public to begin trusting autonomous cars -- and even then, it's likely that automakers will keep some kind of manual override system in place. But there's no reason that those overrides need to look like (or take up as much room as) today's controls. And given the safety records of autonomous cars -- records that will certainly improve with the rollout of vehicle-to-vehicle technology -- we're hopeful that motorists will (almost) never need to use them.


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