Proposed state rules in California may soon allow self-driving cars without a steering wheel or backup driver to operate on the state’s roads. The new regulations, proposed Friday by the state department of motor vehicles, would give a boost to a burgeoning industry that has so far been limited to testing autonomous vehicles only with backup controls and a human driver in case of emergencies.
If the rules are put into place, these vehicles could be tested on California roads by the end of 2017, and could possibly become available for customers in 2018, pending approval by the federal government. Federal rules currently call for a steering wheel and backup driver.
California is already taking a lead ahead of most other states in terms of self-driving technology, and these new rules help keep the state at the forefront of the growing technology. The move is also significant given California’s size as the most populous US state, and as the county’s largest automobile market.
Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor who follows policy on self-driving cars, said “California has taken a big step. This is exciting.”
The proposal will be subject to a public hearing, followed by a comment period, so further changes are possible. Regulators are hoping to put the rules in place by December. The rules were expected to have been proposed two years ago, a delay that reflects the complexity of regulations pertaining to safety and advanced technology. They are considered the
Bernard Soriano, a leading member of the motor vehicle agency’s self-driving vehicle program said, “We don’t want to race to meet a deadline. We want to get this right.”
In one key victory for the industry, the updated proposal includes self-certification similar to the way federal agencies regulate standard vehicles. Once a manufacturer considers a technology road-ready, it will be allowed to market its vehicles. This move will boost key industry players such as Google’s self-driving car project, Waymo.
The regulations do stipulate that autonomous vehicles must be able to pull themselves over in an emergency and must be monitored remotely.
The California Consumer Watchdog group remains skeptical of the regulations, saying they would fail to protect the public. “The new rules are too industry-friendly,” said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog.
Tests of driverless vehicles in California has been considered largely successful. Waymo reported last year that over the course of 424,331 mile of driving, a human driver had to intervene only 11 times.
A total of 27 companies have permits to test autonomous vehicles on California roads.