If we learned nothing else in grade school, we learned that going first is a scary thing. You're expected to wow everyone watching, and you set the tone for all the folks that follow. It's a big risk, and a big responsibility.
California is feeling those kinds of jitters right about now, as it's among the first governments in the world to grapple with the practical complexities of autonomous cars. Will legislators and regulators muck up things for themselves and the increasingly car-focused technology companies like Google and Apple that call California home? Or will the Golden State establish a gold standard for self-driving vehicles?
To answer that question, we have to consider a few facts:
1. California could be considered Planet Earth's home base for autonomous cars. Mountain View-based Google has been testing its fleet of modified Toyota and Lexus vehicles since 2009, and today, the company's self-driving cars have likely logged more than 2 million miles on California roads and tracks. In Cupertino, Apple also appears to have gotten into the autonomous market. And of course, Tesla -- the first automaker to introduce real-world self-driving features -- is based in Palo Alto.
2. However, California's status is in jeopardy, as other states have been quicker to act on self-driving vehicles. Nevada was the first state in the country to allow autonomous vehicles on public roads, and in May of 2012, it became the first to issue an autonomous vehicle license for test models. That fall, California passed a law to allow self-driving vehicles on public roads, but it took the state's Department of Motor Vehicles two more years to approve the necessary regulations. And the agency still hasn't approved guidelines for autonomous vehicles that are sold to the public.
3. Worse, California's regulations seem to miss the point of autonomous cars. As Google itself has made very clear, the only accidents that have happened in the company's self-driving vehicles have either been due to human drivers of other cars or to human drivers taking control of Google's cars. None have been blamed on Google's in-vehicle software. That's in line with what we've heard for years -- namely, that computers drive better than people do.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration understands that, but California appears confused, insisting, for example, that autonomous vehicles must still have steering wheels and brakes. While that might seem like a common-sense requirement, it also suggests that regulators don't understand some of the fundamental differences between human-driven and autonomous vehicles, and why we're moving toward the latter.
Item number three could have an especially big impact on California's future status as a hub for autonomous technology. Google has said that once its software is perfected, it doesn't want humans to be able to take control. That would defeat a major purpose of creating autonomous cars. For the same reasons, Google is also put off by California's proposed requirement that autonomous vehicles be "driven" by specially licensed humans.
Complicating matters further, California's DMV wants to make autonomous vehicles available for lease only, not purchase, which diminishes their appeal to many consumers, making them a harder sell.
These and other factors could encourage autonomous car developers to take their business elsewhere.
Where would they go? At this point, half a dozen other states are making strong pitches to autonomous car companies, including Texas, Florida, and Washington. Even Michigan is trying to woo investment -- something that might not be a hard sell if the Google/Ford pair-up works out.