The View from the Front Seat of the Google Self-Driving Car, Chapter 3

In June of this year, we put our fully self-driving prototypes onto the road for the first time in Mountain View, and sent some Lexus and prototype vehicles to Austin. Eager to get feedback from our neighbors on how they perceive and interact with the new vehicles, we launched the first website for our project, and asked people to tell us how we’re driving.

Since then, we’ve heard countless stories from people who need a fully self-driving car today. We’ve heard from people with health conditions ranging from vision problems to multiple sclerosis to autism to epilepsy who are frustrated with their dependence on others for even simple errands. One woman in Southern California who lost her ability to drive 15 years ago tells us, “my life has become very expensive, complicated, and restricted” since she had to start paying drivers and enduring long waits for buses and trains. Multiple veterans have come home from defending our country only to have their return to normal life challenged by their inability to drive themselves around in a car. And the elderly worry about having to give up their car keys someday.

As for those of us who can drive, we’re not happy either. California has some of the most enjoyable driving roads in the world, but that’s a tiny fraction of a typical resident’s driving experience. Most of the time we’re stuck in the ugly tedium of a freeway commute or sitting at endless stoplights. We’re all too familiar with that quiver of nervousness when we realize 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.

All of this is to say that people are telling us daily that fully self-driving cars are worth a shot. The status quo on our roads is simply not problem-free — it has a real cost, not only in productivity and stress, but in lives damaged and destroyed by the mistakes of human drivers. Around the world, 1.2 million people die on the roads each year. In the U.S., 94 percent of crashes are caused by human error. We have 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.

In September 2012, California legislators passed and the Governor signed into law a visionary autonomous vehicles bill (SB 1298) which directed the DMV to issue regulations for the operation of self-driving cars with or without a driver. These leaders saw the technology’s potential and laid down a path to a better future for California while keeping public safety paramount. Since then, autonomous vehicles have come a long way — we’ve self-driven over 1.3 million miles — and our vehicles are safely testing on California roads, capably handling everyday challenges like road construction and sharing the roads comfortably with cyclists and pedestrians. Numerous states and countries around the world have matched California’s spirit, welcoming self-driving cars to their own roads. Federal transportation officials are also supportive of getting this technology in the public’s hands.

In a perplexing move this week, however, California seemed to shrink back from its leadership: the CA DMV proposed a draft rule that would require a self-driving car to have a licensed driver at all times. 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. While we’re disappointed by this, we will 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.

California is a state with both world-class car culture and world-class innovation, and we can do better. Instead of putting a ceiling on the potential of self-driving cars, let’s have the courage to imagine what California would be like if we could live without the shackles of stressful commutes, wasted hours, and restricted mobility for those who want the independence that the automobile has always represented.