California regulators have shot down what appeared to have been a very ill-advised plan to let self-driving car manufacturers dodge liability for crashes if the cars weren't maintained to industry-written specifications, the Associated Press reported. No such maintenance requirements exist for standard human-driven vehicles, and the California Department of Motor Vehicles was only considering the proposal after it was suggested by General Motors.
If the rule had been adopted, Association of California Insurance Companies vice president Armand Feliciano told the AP, scenarios could include automakers dodging responsibility for major car crashes because of things like slightly under-inflated tires or failing to meet oil change schedules. In November, activist group Consumer Watchdog wrote a letter to the California DMV suggesting former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief counsel Paul Hemmersbaugh, who now works for GM, had improperly hit up government connections to have the rule change quietly inserted.
According to the AP, after the proposed rule was axed GM spokeswoman Laura Tool said the company was nonetheless "pleased to be part of the process."
Self-driving car companies have yet to show off any products that have advanced beyond a prototype phase, but they have been launching a charm offensive in anticipation of entering a consumer market polls show is generally wary of autonomous vehicles' security and safety. Since they're simply not on the road on any meaningful scale yet, it's difficult to say whether the cars will truly be safer than human-piloted vehicles. Congress and regulators, especially in California where many of the cars are being designed, have generally given automakers a great deal of flexibility to test the vehicles.
Loose regulatory oversight of research and development activities, however, is much different than pre-emptively writing rules to favour the automakers who will make the next generation of cars over the people who will have to ride in them. As Engadget noted, an increased risk of liability may nudge manufacturers towards being more cautious before they loose driverless cars on the nation's roads.