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Californians Balk at AVs as State Opens Door to Autonomous Rides

by Stephen Lawson
Companies testing autonomous vehicles in California would be able to give free rides under a proposal by the state's utility regulator, but a new survey suggests consumers aren't buying the AV revolution at any price.

On April 6, the California Public Utilities Commission proposed pilot programs to allow free rides in driverless test cars either with or without human backup drivers. The agency could vote on the plan next month. It would complement regulations that took effect this month allowing fully driverless cars.

Among other conditions, the cars couldn't give rides to or from airports or carry more than one party at a time. The Commission didn't propose any way to let companies charge for autonomous rides. Companies operating the cars would have to comply with other AV rules and have permits from the Department of Motor Vehicles.

If anyone jumps at the chance to offer the free rides, they may be in for a chilly reception. In a survey of California residents released on April 10, 58% of respondents said driverless cars shouldn't be allowed in their neighborhoods. Only 23% said they should, and 19% weren't sure.

There was other bad news in the survey: 57% reported that they would feel either "unsafe" or "very unsafe" getting into a driverless car, while only 28% would feel "safe" or "very safe." Those results echo the findings of some other surveys taken before the Tempe crash.

SurveyUSA conducted the poll for four local TV stations in late March, soon after news broke of the fatal Uber AV accident in Tempe, Ariz. -- though before last month's fatal Tesla Autopilot crash near Mountain View hit the news.

But if such attitudes persist, companies may have a hard time rolling out driverless cars in parts of California. The state's driverless car rules that took effect on April 2 require operators to inform local communities before they put cars on the road.

Meanwhile, AVs may soon become a real policy issue in one California city that's no stranger to the technology.

In a report released last week and covered by the Mountain View Voice newspaper, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, a transit agency serving much of Silicon Valley, said autonomous vehicles might eventually be the best form of transit to the area around Google headquarters in Mountain View. Today, most people drive their own cars there or use company shuttles. The cost of light rail was estimated as high as $500 million.

The report came out of two merged studies, one by Mountain View and the other funded by Google. It proposes starting with traditional buses, then phasing in AVs as the technology matures and policies take shape. Google-linked AV company Waymo isn't mentioned by name.

AVs could be more scalable and flexible than a light rail line, the report said. But a corridor designed specifically for them might allow for narrower lanes, less intrusive lighting and higher efficiency. Those vehicles could be either public or private.

Not surprisingly for a Google-funded study about transportation to the GooglePlex, it proposed (and rejected) a lot of creative alternatives. They included blimps, tricycles, hover bikes, Segways, electric skateboards, flying cars, and a "moving/high-speed walkway."

Those vehicles might take the form of driverless buses, passenger cars that travel together like trains, or something else, the report said. It explored the construction of special roads, either elevated or on the ground.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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