California nixes rule to protect autonomous vehicle makers against dirty sensors

Consumer advocates praise the decision to forego a rule that some had called a "license to kill."

In a victory for consumer advocates, the California Department of Motor Vehicles nixed plans this week to protect autonomous vehicle makers in the event that a vehicle had not been maintained according to manufacturer specifications.

Concerned that improperly cleaned sensors or other neglect by a vehicle owner might cause malfunction, General Motors (GM) suggested a rule to the department that would have absolved the manufacturer of liability. After a review of contradictory comments, the department has decided not to adopt the suggestion.

Consumer advocates have praised the decision as an important precedent that overturns what was originally viewed as a potential loophole for automakers to skirt responsibility. In GM’s original suggestion, the burden of responsibility would have been dependent on how well a vehicle owner followed the cleaning instructions in an official vehicle manual.

When first proposed, nonprofit advocacy group Consumer Watchdog warned that automakers had would be granted a “license to kill” if GM’s rule were adopted. The group called for federal standards and claimed that the DMV was “overreaching” its authority.


The decision comes as the department forges its inaugural regulations for autonomous vehicles, with a final deadline for comments on Dec. 15 and enactment scheduled for early 2018.

State lawmakers are growing increasingly interested in regulating autonomous vehicles, with 33 bills introduced this year, compared to 20 in 2016, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. As states seek their role in the emerging regulatory landscape, California’s leadership on rules advancement positions those proposals as a potential template for other states to follow.

As state government prepares the rules of the road, automakers are making their own plans. GM announced last month it plans to use autonomous vehicles to carry passengers and deliver goods in big cities sometime in 2019.

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