Self-driving cars may be the vehicles of the future, but the California Department of Motor Vehicles is still trying to figure out how to regulate them.
The DMV will miss a New Year's deadline set by a state Senate bill to establish regulations for driverless cars.
Citing safety concerns, the DMV said in a statement that it was seeking input from industry, consumer groups and academics, among others, to determine standards for driving fully autonomous vehicles on California roads. The agency will hold a public workshop in Sacramento at the end of January to discuss possible regulations.
According to the agency, there are currently no federal safety standards or independent organizations that test the safety of these vehicles.
An initial set of regulations governing testing of driverless cars on California roads, but not daily use by consumers, went into effect in May.
Google's prototype car will be cruising Northern California streets next year, according to an announcement this week on the Self-Driving Car Project's Google+ page. BMW and Mercedes-Benz have also developed similar vehicles.
Many transportation experts agree that autonomous cars should be safer than human drivers who are more prone to making mistakes because they have slower response times and become distracted by text messages, sports scores, and YouTube videos on their phones while driving.
"The car does not get distracted," said Mario Gerla, a UCLA computer science professor who researched driverless cars as part of a project studying traffic and air pollution. "Most of the accidents are caused by human error."
But one aspect that must be addressed, Gerla says, is the potential for malicious attacks on the vehicles' software system: Cars that drive without humans at the wheel would essentially be huge moving computers that rely on vehicle-to-vehicle communication to determine road conditions and movement, he said. Unless this information is securely transmitted, the system could be hacked, inaccurate information could be disseminated and large-scale accidents could occur, Gerla said.
That lack of control — and a reliance on a computer system instead of a human — could cause considerable anxiety about hopping into a driverless car, said Brian Taylor, director of UCLA's Institute of Transportation Studies.
There's also the fact that because of their precision driving and enhanced response times, autonomous cars could do something that causes passengers to grit their teeth and ball their fists in fear: tailgate.
Those shorter distances between cars traveling at relatively high velocity would take some getting used to, said Jim Moore, director of USC's Transportation Engineering Program.
Taylor emphasized that there would be many intermediate steps taken that will ease consumers into the idea of riding in vehicles that they are not driving themselves. Already, cars have some automated components such as antilock brakes, sensors for parallel parking and cruise control.
Though driverless cars are being tested now, the infrastructure needed to help autonomous cars interact with roads customized for them and realize the technology's full potential could be decades away, Taylor said.