Google-owned Waymo has gained a major victory in the path towards fully autonomous vehicles. California has granted regulatory approval for Waymo cars to operate on its road without a human occupant for emergencies.
Advocates of autonomous vehicles say this is a major technological leap, while critics argue it is a leap too far at this stage of driverless car development. Either way, the legal framework is in place in California to allow the first fully autonomous vehicles to hit the roads.
Google has been a leader in the development of driverless vehicle technology and its Waymo brand cars will be able to cruise at speeds up to 104 kilometres per hour without a human on board. As a frontrunner in autonomous tech, Waymo cars have been testing on California’s roads a decade ago.
Other driverless car companies have been pushing California’s government to allow regulations for full autonomy, insisting the technology is safe. It is worth noting that this stage of development still requires an engineer to be remotely accessing the car to stop and steer if an incident occurs.
It is this human input that makes many uneasy. There are now two variables for an accident, the technology malfunctioning, or the remote engineer not spotting a danger in time. In the future, autonomous vehicles will operate entirely on their own, connecting with other cars and even smart cities.
While California is rightly seen as a forward-thinking adopter of autonomous technology, it is not a trailblazer in this case. Waymo’s fully driverless vehicles have been operating in Arizona since last year. In that pilot program, the vehicles were giving rides to select volunteer passengers in an Uber-like ride-sharing scenario.
California, however, is another major test for the technology due to its busier roads and increased population. Google will believe if its autonomous technology can pass the test in California, it will be able to operate virtually anywhere.
Still, Waymo has plenty of critics with the core argument stemming from the nascent nature of the technology.
“This will allow Waymo to test its robotic cars using people as human guinea pigs,” said John Simpson, privacy and technology project director for Consumer Watchdog. Waymo disagrees and says its vehicles will operate at least on the level of a human driver.
“If a Waymo vehicle comes across a situation it doesn’t understand, it does what any good driver would do: comes to a safe stop until it does understand how to proceed,” the company said.