Google self-driving car photo

A Google self-driving carMark Doliner/Flickr

When veteran legislative staffer Howard Posner began working on a bill that would allow driverless, computer-controlled cars to roam California’s highways, he figured lawmakers would find the idea alarming.

They didn’t.

“Eventually, you might be on the freeway, and someone might not be behind the wheel,” said Posner, a consultant to the Assembly Transportation Committee, in an unusual moment of candor for a legislative staff member. “By the time this thing rolls out, people will probably be more comfortable. But today they’re not, and I assumed the legislators would have the same feeling.”

The legislation pushed by Google, which makes the autonomous car technology, passed 37-0 in the Senate and 74-2 in the Assembly. It is now awaiting action by Gov. Jerry Brown.

In voting for the legislation, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they believed the technology would make the roads safer and keep California at the forefront of innovation.

The easy passage of the bill, which was sponsored by state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Van Nuys, also showed the growing clout of the Mountain View company, said Rob Stutzman, who was deputy chief of staff to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“It was a powerful effort that they put together,” said Stutzman, who represents carmakers that opposed the bill. “They picked a powerful author. They clearly lobbied the governor’s administration as well.”

Disclosure statements filed by Google show that the company repeatedly lobbied the Legislature, the California Highway Patrol and the Department of Motor Vehicles from October to July on the issue. During that period, Google paid $140,000 for the lobbying services of Jonathan Ross, from the prominent Sacramento firm KP Public Affairs.

During the 2009-10 legislative session, Google gave campaign contributions totaling $64,000 to 36 members and successful candidates for the state Senate and Assembly. It also gave $25,900 each to Brown and his unsuccessful Republican rival, Meg Whitman. The company has not reported making any campaign contributions during the current election cycle.

Padilla’s bill, SB 1298, would allow companies to test self-driven cars on public roads and require the DMV to draft rules governing use of the vehicles by the public. The measure also would define a car’s “operator” as the person sitting in the driver’s seat, or if there’s no one in the driver’s seat, the person who “causes the autonomous technology to engage.”

A similar law won approval in Nevada last year, and Google is lobbying other states to follow suit. The company reported spending $8.95 million during the first half of 2012 to lobby federal officials on numerous issues, including the driverless car.

Padilla, who has a mechanical engineering degree from MIT, promoted the legislation in March at a press conference on the front steps of the state Capitol after arriving in a Google car.

“The vast majority of traffic fatalities and injuries are caused by human error,” Padilla said at the time. “Can we utilize and incorporate state-of-the-art technology to make our vehicles and therefore our roads and society safer?”

Currently, California has no prohibition against operating the so-called autonomous cars on public roads. The car uses video cameras, radar and lasers to drive in traffic and GPS to navigate. Google has driven its cars 300,000 miles without an accident while in self-driving mode, a Google spokesman said.

“We believe that the vehicle code should be updated explicitly to permit the testing and operation of autonomous vehicles in accordance with specific safety requirements, to ensure that any use of autonomous vehicles on California roads is conducted in a safe manner,” said Google spokesman Jay Nancarrow in an email.

California lawmakers gushed over the new technology as they cast their votes for the bill.

“It’s just a really cool thing that we’re going to have autonomous vehicles in California,” Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-San Fernando Valley, said on the Assembly floor last month.

Working out the details of the bill, however, was not so simple.

Automakers were worried about their liability in the event that the computer driving a car malfunctioned. Privacy advocates worried about how Google would use the vast amount of travel data it would collect on each car. Some legislators initially wanted Google to come back for separate legislation to authorize driverless operation after more testing was done. The California Highway Patrol and DMV were uncertain about the new technology.

“Behind the scenes it was a real struggle,” said Posner, the committee consultant.

By the time the bill reached the Assembly Transportation Committee in late June, the Highway Patrol’s concerns, including who would write the rules of the road for self-driving cars, had been resolved, Padilla told the committee. But representatives for the California Highway Patrol, who would normally attend such a hearing, were not in the room at the time, Posner said.

Their conspicuous absence sent a message to everyone: “They’ve been silenced by the governor’s office,” Posner said.

A spokeswoman for the California Highway Patrol declined to comment. A spokesman for the governor’s office didn’t return an email seeking comment. Padilla declined a request for an interview.

In its final form, the bill would give the DMV authority to reject the use of driverless cars that did not meet its standards. The measure also would require that owners be notified about what data their car is collecting, but it did not resolve questions of liability.

“Google, and I don’t mean this negatively, they wanted everything now,” said Posner. “They didn’t want to have to come back for subsequent legislation.” 

Posner said he will soon retire after 40 years working for the state, and so he doesn’t mind being candid about the maneuvering behind the Google legislation.

“The benefits of this could be enormous,” he said, “but if you don’t do this right, there could be some horrific accidents.”

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Zusha Elinson

Zusha Elinson covered bikes, buses, Bay Area Rapid Transit and other transportation issues for The Bay Citizen. He previously was a legal reporter at The Recorder, a legal/business newspaper based in San Francisco, and an editor at Marinscope Community Newspapers. Zusha started his career at The Oakland Post.