The head of Google‘s self-driving car project, Chris Urmson, has taken to Medium to voice his anger at a decision in California to require a licensed driver to remain behind the wheel of an autonomous vehicle.
In a passionate defence of the self-driving car, Urmson emphasises the need of people with disabilities to have access to personal transport without having to be dependent on others. He also points out the safety benefits inherent in eliminating human error.
Urmson’s argument is that a world of self-driving cars would protect everyone: “We’re all too familiar with that quiver of nervousness when we realise we’re near a weaving driver who’s either had a few too many drinks or is distracted by their phone. Having a self-driving car shoulder the entire burden of getting from A to B — and knowing that many other vehicles out there are also navigating autonomously — could make a big difference.”
The post is a response to the announcement on 17 December by California’s Department of Motor Vehicles that its draft regulations for self-driving cars would require them to have both a licensed driver and a steering wheel and breaks which would allow that driver to take control of the vehicle in case of emergency.
Urmson is critical of the proposal, writing that that “this maintains the same old status quo and falls short on allowing this technology to reach its full potential, while excluding those who need to get around but cannot drive.”
In the post, he urges regulators to “imagine a better future, and take urgent steps to get there. Not a future of partial self-driving capabilities – we’ve seen in our own testing that drivers can’t be trusted to dip in and out of the task of driving when the car is encouraging them to sit back and relax – but of fully-autonomous vehicles which are open to all.”
It’s notable that Urmson doesn’t acknowledge that the DMV’s proposed regulations clearly address a transitional period — which would by necessity involve a handful of new and relatively untested self-driving cars in traffic that will still consist predominately of human-steered vehicles. The development of current motor vehicles went through a similar transition — until 1896 cars had to be preceded by a pedestrian waving a red flag.
However, Urmson makes it clear that Google hasn’t given up on persuading California to share its vision for an autonomous future, writing that “continue to work with the DMV as they seek feedback in the coming months, in the hope that we can recapture the original spirit of the bill”.