What’s the deal with driverless cars? They could be cruising around LA by 2020 — or sooner

While there aren’t any fully-functioning driverless cars out and about in the U.S. (not legally-operated ones, anyway), that reality might not be too far off in Beverly Hills, where autonomous vehicles could be traversing the city’s streets in as little as one year from now; maybe two.

Using a combination of motion sensor technology and localization software, autonomous vehicles are — at least, conceptually — designed to mimic the behaviors and reaction time of the quintessential human driver. For many of the nation’s actual human drivers, this poses an attractive roster of efficiency and safety-centric possibilities. And, in some ways, it makes sense: imagine if your car’s GPS system could also man the steering wheel, gas, and brakes while you napped in the passenger seat.

In April of 2016, Beverly Hills’ city council unanimously adopted a resolution ushering in this vehicular shift. The resolution, helmed by Beverly Hills mayor John Mirisch, essentially called for the development of a new age public transport system throughout the city — one comprised exclusively of driverless cars.  

“Beverly Hills is the perfect community to take the lead and make this technology a reality,” Mirisch said in a statement just after the resolution first passed. The city’s modest 5.7-mile radius, he reasoned, makes it a prime candidate to host what might otherwise be an over-complicated (and potentially dangerous) large-scale change. But in Beverly Hills, Mirisch assured, “It is now both feasible and safe for autonomous cars to be on the road.”

Fast-forward two years. As far as incorporating autonomous vehicles into regular city traffic is concerned, Beverly Hills isn’t alone. In fact, less than two months ago, the state of California gave autonomous vehicles the green light. On February 26, California passed legislation allowing its Department of Motor Vehicles to begin issuing permits for autonomous vehicle manufacturers to test-drive their cars without a human driver present. The legislation, which officially went into effect April 2, eliminates the state’s formerly-held regulatory policy, which mandated that every operating autonomous vehicle must have a human driver present to intervene in case of emergencies.

Still, the new law stipulates that a human must be present somewhere, overseeing the vehicular operations from a remote location. (Kind of like a remote-controlled toy helicopter, or a race-car video game.) For some, the regulatory shift seemed to herald in an exciting new era, chalk-full of innovative, technologically-savvy possibilities. But for others, the state loosening its hand on autonomous car regulations feels a little bit like jumping the gun, and could pose a very real threat to human drivers on the road. Perhaps one of the initiative’s loudest dissenters is John Simpson, a director for Consumer Watchdog and fierce critic of the nation’s move toward self-driving cars.

“The fact is, these cars are not ready to be out on their own unsupervised,” Simpson told KCRW’s DnA, noting an obvious “creepiness factor” that accompanies the possibility of an unmanned robot car driving around on its own.

There are also real concerns about safety. Last month in Tempe, Arizona, an Uber-operated autonomous car hit an unsuspecting pedestrian who was crossing the street, killing her. (The New York Times published a step-by-step infographic that’ll probably give you cyborg-themed nightmares for months.) And, despite the sensors, cameras and actual emergency back-up driver sitting behind the wheel, it remains unclear exactly how the accident actually happened.

While Simpson acknowledged that the results of the National Transportation and Safety Board’s investigation into the Arizona collision is still in progress, he said he believes the collision was a testament to the dangers of minimal regulation policies when it comes to test driving autonomous vehicles. (Arizona adopted a markedly “hands off” approach to its own regulation several years ago, welcoming driverless car companies to test their vehicles on state roads with minimal oversight.)

“It tells us a great deal about the error of having no regulations in place,” Simpson said. “You know, somebody got killed because the governor of Arizona was telling everybody, ‘Come here. Come here.’”

Even though California’s regulatory policies are stricter than Arizona’s (California requires its autonomous vehicle manufacturers to publicly report any collisions, malfunctions, or mishaps), Simpson still felt like the accident alone should have been enough for other states to pump the brakes on their own self-driving car initiatives.

“Right now, we know enough to know that there was a huge problem that was clearly the fault of the self-driving technology,” Simpson said, adding that it suggests a “failure on the part of the backup system that Uber had in place.”

Despite the critiques of self-driving cars in the aftermath of the accident in Tempe, Beverly Hills seems more ready than ever to welcome the change. Grayson Brulte, a consultant on self-driving cars and the Co-Chair of the City of Beverly Hills Mayor’s Autonomous Vehicle Task Force, is a huge proponent.

“The city has taken a very extremely positive welcoming approach to autonomous vehicles. Let’s learn together. These vehicles will be on our roads,” Brulte told KCRW’s DnA. “They will have a positive impact on our city.”

A few weeks ago, Brulte took the producers behind KCRW’s DnA on a drive (in a manually-operated vehicle, not an autonomous one) through the residential streets surrounding our station — a densely populated, albeit relatively quiet (compared to adjacent neighborhoods, at least), area in the heart of Santa Monica’s Pico district. According to KCRW’s DnA, the ride was interrupted several times by pedestrians who unexpectedly crossed in front of the car, headphones in, without paying Brulte so much as a passing glance.

“Watch this lady,” Brulte told DnA reporters, referencing an earbud-clad woman who’d just sauntered into the street without warning. As she proceeded to walk past his car, sans eye-contact, he continued, “See, this is what people do! They just jet out in front of you.”

An autonomous vehicle, Brulte said, might be better equipped to handles scenarios like this one. Why? “The autonomous vehicle would’ve never crossed the stop sign,” he said, although the Arizona collision just weeks earlier should probably caution against overgeneralized hyperboles like “never.” It might be worth noting that Brulte, from behind the wheel of his Porsche Cayenne, didn’t cross, either.

In theory, Brulte makes a valid point. Motion sensors, after all, should be the ultimate safety measure to protect against collisions. But in practice — as the Arizona crash revealed, and as tends to be the case with most iterations of modern technology — the software doesn’t always function exactly the way it’s programming suggests that it should. Just like your iPhone, there’s always a possibility for unexplained, unanticipated glitches. Of course, when it comes to driverless vehicles, the stakes — for obvious reasons — are much higher.

Listen to DnA on driverless cars: