PhotoTesla CEO Elon Musk is saying his company will have driverless cars in the U.S. by this summer. Google is working on its pod-shaped driverless cars and just about everyone else is talking about getting into the act.

The assumption is that driverless cars will be safer than those with humans at the wheel. But is that really true? A California consumer group says it's not convinced.

Consumer Watchdog warned the California Department of Motor Vehicles that it must not allow Google and others with a vested interest in developing driverless vehicles to push the DMV into issuing rules regulating the public use of robot cars on highways that are inadequate to protect public safety.

“Most importantly, a driverless vehicle must allow a licensed driver to assume control when necessary,” wrote John M. Simpson, ConsumerWatchdog Privacy Project director in a letter to DMV Director Jean Shiomoto.

“Despite Google’s public relations campaign and statements that it hopes to have robot cars for public use operating on the road within five years, it is important to understand what its vehicles cannot do,” wrote Simpson. “Recognition of the Google driverless cars’ shortcomings should help inform the DMV’s ‘autonomous vehicle’ public use rulemaking process.”

Consumer Watchdog’s letter noted a long list of shortcomings of Google’s driverless car technology, including:

  • Weather.  Heavy precipitation interferes with the vehicle’s sensors and they don’t work in the snow, nor in heavy rain.  
  • Human hand signals. The robot cars can’t interact reliably with hand signals given by the human driver of another vehicle, or a policeman using only hand signals to direct traffic.
  • Sunshine. If the sun is behind a traffic light, it can interfere with the driverless car’s ability to determine the traffic light’s color.
  • Changing road conditions. The sensors don’t recognize large potholes and would not detect an open manhole.  If a traffic light were installed overnight as in the case of a road construction site, the car’s driverless navigation system would not expect it.  
  • Pre-mapped roads. Google’s robot cars rely on detailed sensor mapping of routes before the robot car hits the road. If a Google driverless car tried a route that had not been specially mapped, probably even a large parking lot, it wouldn’t know what to do. 
  • Humans. The driverless cars’ video sensors can’t reliably distinguish between a tree branch blowing in the wind and a pedestrian.

The decision on whether to allow a particular manufacturer’s driverless cars to be offered to the public should be informed by the results of safety testing that is being done under the DMV testing regulations now in effect, Consumer Watchdog said.

DMV regulations governing the testing of driverless cars on California highways took effect on Sept. 16, 2014. A key safety provision of the testing regulations is the requirement that there must be a test driver in the driver’s seat who is capable of assuming control of the car.

“Ironically, a little more than a week after the DMV adopted the testing regulations, Google announced plans for a fleet of robot cars that have no steering wheel, brake pedal or accelerator,” wrote Simpson.  “There would be no way for an occupant to take control in an emergency; occupant lives would be in the hands of Google’s driverless technology, completely at the Internet giant’s mercy.”
 


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