No one behind the wheel ... or in the car

'Ghost cars' could be zipping around Mountain View streets under DMV proposal

For nearly three years, Mountain View residents have become accustomed to seeing self-driving cars zipping around town, but the technology could soon be kicking off its training wheels.

In a big leap, the California Department of Motor Vehicles Friday published new proposed rules that would allow autonomous car companies to test cars without any human driver inside -- meaning self-driving cars would finally be truly driverless. If so, it could be a common sight to see unoccupied "ghost cars" zipping around Mountain View's streets.

"This is really the next step to moving forward the driverless testing and also the public use," said DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez. "A number of (self-driving car manufacturers) will be ready to move forward with driverless testing over the next year to make this happen."

The new rules announced on Friday, March 10, come as the latest step in a fast-paced industry that, in many cases, is leaving regulators racing to catch up. Currently, 27 different manufacturers have permits with the California DMV to test autonomous vehicles in the state, and many of those firms are either based in Mountain View or have an office nearby.

While self-driving cars would no longer need a human behind the wheel, car manufacturers would need to have someone monitoring the vehicles remotely. It isn't clear exactly how this would be accomplished, but reportedly the technology is sufficient to allow human monitors to remotely track autonomous vehicles. DMV officials are not specifying how many vehicles one human could monitor simultaneously.

Many details of the new regulations are being left vague at this point as DMV officials prepare to gather feedback from stakeholders, including industry representatives and consumer advocates. Department officials are planning a public review of the proposed new rules next month, and they will modify them accordingly, Gonzalez said. She said she expected the new rules to take effect by November, at the earliest.

These new regulations could have particular significance for the city of Mountain View because, for the first time, local officials will be required to sanction any testing of driverless vehicles. Originally, DMV officials were mulling the idea of asking local jurisdictions to pass an ordinance or resolution for the testing. That seemed too complicated, so the rules were loosened to force autonomous-car companies to instead seek only "written support" from the jurisdiction.

This cooperation with local authorities would also apply to law enforcement. With no human behind the wheel of a self-driving car, police officers would need a new way to stop these vehicles if they malfunctioned or presented a safety risk. Companies would likely be required to create a new web portal for police to access information on a car's ownership, insurance, its human monitor and how to safely remove it from the roadway, Gonzalez said.

These rules may also open the possibility for regular consumers to take a ride in autonomous vehicles. The new DMV regulations would only prohibit companies from charging riders a fee like a taxi service during this testing phase. But if companies wanted to give regular citizens a free ride -- perhaps as a way to introduce the technology to the public -- that would be allowed, Gonzalez said.

In Mountain View, Google has been the most conspicuous player in the self-driving car market through its spin-off Waymo. Contacted by the Voice, Waymo representatives said they had no comment on the new rules. The company is currently testing 60 self-driving cars throughout California.

Mountain View leaders had a mixed reaction to the news when they were contacted by the Voice on Monday. City Manager Dan Rich said the city would need to further review any regulations to decide how local law enforcement would be involved.

"We have not had a role in this before so we need to learn more about it," Rich said in an email. "We hope this new regulation advances the technology while also ensuring safety to the greatest extent possible."

But other observers have already hailed the new rules as the right step forward to maintain Silicon Valley's edge on innovation.

"California is serious about encouraging the development, testing and deployment of safe autonomous vehicles,” state Sen. Jerry Hill said in a statement. "The completion of the regulations is important so our state can maintain its leading edge in this competitive field.”


7 people like this
Posted by Rich
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Mar 13, 2017 at 2:32 pm

It really seems like a standardized way for police to stop these vehicles, as well as a way to communicate with the person in charge of the vehicle, should be in place before they are allowed to be completely autonomous.

Of course, it is possible that the cars are already able to recognize a police vehicle behind them and pull over. And it should be pretty easy to have an intercom to talk to the remote operator.

7 people like this
Posted by Probably74
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 13, 2017 at 2:50 pm

It seems to me that the sub-head and first sentence are a little optimistic. I have yet to see one of these vehicles "zip" anywhere. More like "plod" along overly cautiously, but I guess that's how testing is done on real streets and not test tracks.

5 people like this
Posted by Concern
a resident of Waverly Park
on Mar 13, 2017 at 3:33 pm

Further testing is fine, but I would like to see terrorism addressed. Today, suicide bombers are few and can only do one act. Weaponizing an autonomous vehicle seems entirely possible and I haven't seen it addressed as to how it would be prevented.

Like this comment
Posted by Jim Lyons
a resident of another community
on Mar 13, 2017 at 4:38 pm

It seems to me an easy way to monitor the driverless vehicle would be to have a human monitor and driver in a car directly behind the driverless car. The monitor and the accompanying driver would each have a "kill" switch connected to the driverless car. During the initial driverless tests there could be two or three other cars with drivers & monitors next to the driverless car. Maybe even a specially equipped drone or two overhead.

In addition, a method should be designed so no "outsider" car can scoot between the driver & monitor's car and the driverless car.

Allow me to be the first outsider to sign up for a ride in a driverless car. I'm reluctant to post my phone number in a public publication, but I can be reached at: Jim Lyons, P. O. Box 1934, Los Altos, CA 94023.

Like this comment
Posted by PA Resident
a resident of another community
on Mar 13, 2017 at 5:45 pm

I come across the vehicles in their present configuration almost everyday in Palo Alto and Mountain View. I have learned to give them a little more space but basically give them ne'er a second glance nowadays. But with the empty cars driving themselves I wonder if they are going to have a different logo or any other way to discern that these are unoccupied rather than one with an operator inside the car? I would like to know which ones are which when I see them.

6 people like this
Posted by vonlost
a resident of Cuesta Park
on Mar 13, 2017 at 11:46 pm

What's the difference between having a monitor with a kill switch *following* the Waymo, and a monitor with a kill switch *inside* the Waymo? None! The cars will be ready when they're ready, and accidents will drop to essentially zero when there are zero human drivers.

6 people like this
Posted by Darin
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Mar 14, 2017 at 2:52 pm

Darin is a registered user.

Surrounding driverless cars with two or three monitor cars will create an artificial buffer zone that will make the testing less valuable. Even a single monitor car will create an artificial buffer zone if no "outsider" cars can get between it and the driverless car.

If the self-driving cars still need to be monitored that closely, then I think they still need a safety driver behind the wheel, the way they've been tested for years now. But if they've reached the point that they don't need a safety driver behind the wheel, then they shouldn't need monitor vehicles tailing them either.

1 person likes this
Posted by LCL
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Mar 14, 2017 at 4:14 pm

I was shocked to see one ( labeled that Alphabet?) run a red light a few weeks ago!

Like this comment
Posted by Darin
a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood
on Mar 15, 2017 at 3:19 pm

Darin is a registered user.


Alphabet is the parent company. Alphabet owns Google. Alphabet also owns Waymo and a number of other companies. Waymo started life as Google's self-driving car project, but now it's a separate company.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Martens-Carmelita

on Aug 21, 2017 at 9:01 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Couples: So You Married Mom or Dad . . .
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 935 views

Eat, Surf, Love
By Laura Stec | 2 comments | 921 views

The Cost of Service
By Aldis Petriceks | 2 comments | 541 views