Should Self-Driving Cars Have Drivers Ready To Take Over? : All Tech Considered California's Department of Motor Vehicles proposed that self-driving cars should have a licensed driver inside. It may disrupt the dream of driverless cars, but it's also seen as a step for safety.
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Should Self-Driving Cars Have Drivers Ready To Take Over?

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Should Self-Driving Cars Have Drivers Ready To Take Over?

Should Self-Driving Cars Have Drivers Ready To Take Over?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The day when you'll be chauffeured to work by your car may not be far off.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Surely within the next 10 years.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: As early as five years.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Over the next three to five years.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I have a 12-year-old son, and the goal is to get this out into the world before he has to get his driver's license.

SIEGEL: In Washington and in state capitals right now, legal groundwork is being laid to make way for the self-driving car. We're talking to key players this week and today, we hear from an office that robotic car advocates have accused of squelching innovation before it even gets on the road, the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Brian Soublet is the chief counsel.

BRIAN SOUBLET: We're concerned about how safe the vehicles are. Could the vehicle operate in all the varying weather conditions that we're used to? Will the sensors be able to detect changes in the road surfaces? What would happen if there was an emergency failure of the autonomous technology? What would the vehicle be able to do? Will they obey all of the traffic laws? Who would have liability exposure if there was an accident?

SIEGEL: As I understand it, the California Department of Motor Vehicles has drawn at least one red line here, and that is that as far as you guys are concerned, such vehicles will have to have a licensed operator inside them.

SOUBLET: That's at least initially what we put out and what we're calling a draft of our deployment regulations. About 11 companies have been testing autonomous vehicles that have a driver inside the vehicle that's an employee of the company. By statute, we haven't had any testing of a completely driverless vehicle, so our approach was that there needed to be a driver in it. What we would contemplate in the future is some testing that would involve a vehicle with no driver in it.

SIEGEL: The implication of the licensed driver in the vehicle is that that person is at the very least a backup responsible party. It's either the car or that person.

SOUBLET: Correct. If you think about it, the person is the backup to the automated systems, the concern being what happens if there is a failure of the technology? We don't want to see vehicles just stopping in the roadway. There has to be some contemplation of how the vehicle would be controlled such that it doesn't become a danger to other motorists.

SIEGEL: Do we know that autonomous vehicles will assume the irrational? It might be the right of the car to run somebody over, let's say, but that's something that no actual driver would do.

SOUBLET: We often refer to that as the ethical question. You know, what is the vehicle going to do when it's faced with two bad choices? How is it going to make that decision? And we don't necessarily have an answer for that. That's one of our troubling points when we deal with the manufacturers. How are you going to program the vehicle such that it would make what we would consider to be the ethical choice?

SIEGEL: What are the ethics of driving and seeing an animal in the road, for example? Is it drive through the animal or the animal has no right to be there, or slow down and avoid it?

SOUBLET: We often use the example - it's a shopping cart full of groceries versus a baby stroller with a child in it. How does the car know what to do in that scenario, especially if it's a no-win scenario, it's got to hit one of them? How does the car know which is the right thing to hit?

SIEGEL: The requirement that there be a licensed driver and operator inside the vehicle, that seems to be in conflict with what some visionaries for driverless cars hope for, which is really a time when you get into this thing and program it, and it pulls out of the driveway and it takes you to work. Should we simply dismiss that as science fiction and something for our grandchildren to worry about?

SOUBLET: I don't think so. I think we're going to get there. You know, one of the things that people need to realize is that the average age of a vehicle on the streets right now is about 11 years old, so there's going to be a transitional phase when that highly-automated vehicle is sharing the roadway with vehicles that aren't automated. I spoke to a junior high school class a couple of months ago and I told students, who were about 12, 13 years old, that the first car that they probably buy with own money is going to be a highly automated vehicle.

SIEGEL: Brian Soublet of the California Department of Motor Vehicles, thanks for talking with us.

SOUBLET: Thank you for your time.

SIEGEL: And tomorrow, we'll hear from the lead engineer on Google's self-driving car project, Chris Urmson.

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