Self-driving cars have been navigating Mountain View's streets for years, but there's always been a catch. Up till now, the robo-cars have always had a human sitting in the driver's seat, ready to take the wheel if the autonomous systems were to fail.
But that will soon be changing. Starting this month, state regulators will begin allowing autonomous vehicles to drive on public roads on their own, without anyone behind the wheel. In other words, driverless cars will soon be truly driverless.
The change has big implications for Mountain View, home to 19 companies developing self-driving technology, some of which are routinely test-driving on its streets. The new testing phase unleashes a bevy of new questions and concerns for Mountain View officials, who acknowledge they have largely taken a backseat on the technology's impacts up to this point.
"There's a paradigm shift happening right now, but we don't know where this is going to land," said Alex Andrade, Mountain View's economic development director. "Silicon Valley is an environment where failure isn't frowned upon. But when we're talking about potential fatalities, that's different."
Those watching the surging autonomous-vehicle industry surely had Monday, April 2, circled on their calendars, when the California Department of Motor Vehicles was scheduled to start allowing the new driverless testing.
The new phase would still require companies to have human monitors keeping an eye on their self-piloted vehicles, which could be done from a remote computer terminal. These remote monitors are supposed to take manual control of a vehicle if a problem occurs. There is no specified limit on the number of cars that can be simultaneously monitored by one person, according to DMV officials. This has led consumer advocates to warn that the loosened rules will make safeguards for autonomous vehicles into a "deadly video game."
In another big change, the DMV will also allow approved companies to begin offering rides in autonomous vehicles to regular consumers. At this point, the new regulations prohibit companies from charging riders a fee, like a taxi service would. If companies wanted to give someone a free ride, perhaps as a way to introduce the technology to the public, that would be allowed.
But the response from the 52 registered autonomous-vehicle companies has been muted so far. As of this week, DMV officials said they had only received one application for this new testing phase. They won't reveal which company until they have finished reviewing the application, which could take up to 10 days.
Out of the 19 registered autonomous vehicle firms with offices in Mountain View, seven of them have contact information on file with city officials. The Voice reached out all of them to ask about their plans for this next test phase.
Only two companies responded. A spokesman for the local Honda R&D office said the company will not be testing on public roads at this time. Google's self-driving offshoot, Waymo, responded with a prepared statement, saying the company intends to eventually deploy this technology, but declined to indicate when.
Mountain View officials also appear to also be in the dark on what to expect. Self-driving cars have been operating on city streets for more than four years, but regulations and safety measures have largely been left to state authorities. Up to this point, city officials' main engagement has been to aid the companies in finding office space or other resources they needed, Andrade said.
In that time, problems have been rare. In 2015, a Mountain View police officer pulled over a slow-moving Google self-driving car to issue a verbal warning about blocking traffic, an incident that generated international headlines.
The most alarming news emerged just in recent days. On March 23, a Tesla Model X reportedly operating in the company's semi-autonomous Autopilot mode crashed into a road barrier on Highway 101 in Mountain View, killing the driver. The fatal crash came just days after an Uber self-driving vehicle hit and killed a woman who was crossing a street at night in Tempe, Arizona.
Mayor Lenny Siegel said he expects a bit of a public wake-up call to come soon, as more unoccupied autonomous vehicles are spotted driving around town. The technology is hardly flawless, he said. He observes the limitations first-hand every time a Waymo car turns onto his street in Old Mountain View. His street is apparently too narrow for the autopilot systems to navigate, and he said he has watched as the vehicles stall in the middle of the street for no apparent reason.
In an interview with the Voice, Siegel listed off the numerous questions he has about this new phase of autonomous vehicle testing. Can these vehicles safely maneuver around construction zones, pedestrians or bicyclists? How many self-driving vehicles can one remote employee track simultaneously? How will these vehicles change traffic patterns for driving and parking?
Mountain View seems destined to be a "laboratory" to test out these issues, he said. While it may be true that self-driving cars can reduce overall traffic accidents, it is still reasonable to be concerned about the safety measures underpinning the technology, he said.
"There's huge excitement from the companies, the public and legislators, and they're rushing ahead, but they're not giving us the opportunity to address the local issues that might arise," he said. "I think once we have cars without humans, and someone gets hurt, people are going to ask me why I didn't do something about it."
Under the new testing rules, companies are obligated to provide a variety of information to local authorities before they can put driverless vehicles on the road. This includes specifics on the number of vehicles as well as boundaries and times for when the vehicles will be on the road.
City Manager Dan Rich said Mountain View has not received this information from any companies.