Donate Today

Robot cars with no steering wheels, brake pedals or accelerator pedals — and no drivers — could be legal in California by June under updated regulations proposed by the state Department of Motor Vehicles on Wednesday.

However, makers of the autonomous cars must certify their safety to federal regulators under standards that are still evolving, so actual deployment is likely to take longer.

“We are excited to take the next step in furthering the development of this potentially life-saving technology in California,” said Brian Kelly, state transportation secretary, in a statement.

The DMV revised regulations it issued in March, after garnering feedback from carmakers, consumer advocates, lawmakers and insurers. Its overall goal is to pave the way for an autonomous-vehicle future being avidly pursued by dozens of carmakers, tech companies and startups.

“This sets us on a path toward the public being able to use the technologies put forth by vehicle manufacturers,” said Brian Soublet, DMV deputy director, in a media call.

California has had regulations allowing autonomous testing since 2014, but they require a backup driver at the wheel. Currently 42 manufacturers have permits here for 285 test vehicles and 996 backup drivers.

The changes since March were minor, including a template for carmakers to report on disengagements (when an operator has to take control of a robot car); specifying what information companies must include when notifying local governments about driverless testing; and outlining conditions under which companies need to amend their DMV applications for testing or deployment.

The public has until Oct. 25 to comment on the revisions by emailing LADRegulations@dmv.ca.gov. The rule-making process could result in enactment by mid next year, Soublet said.

The DMV’s rules acknowledge that federal authorities oversee vehicle safety, while the state’s role is to enforce traffic regulations and licensing.

However, federal rules are in flux, with Congress currently working to hammer out autonomous-driving regulations.

“The DMV regulations for testing are a good first step,” said Laura Fraade-Blanar, a post-doctoral fellow at the Rand Corp. “The last step is unbridled commercial availability, but we’re still a long way from that.”

Current federal regulations would block sales of autonomous cars altogether, so Congress is trying to conceptualize an entirely new system “that would allow autonomous vehicles to be made publicly available as they meet performance-based safety thresholds,” she said. Input from tests such as those in California is invaluable to that process.

The federal law could entirely preempt states’ rights to enact their own self-driving rules, said Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina law professor affiliated with Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society.

“Confusing language (of the current Senate bill, SB 1885) could be interpreted very broadly to preempt (i.e., negate) all kinds of traffic laws, data protection laws, and other laws of general application,” he said in an email.

But Smith said, “I am struck that California’s DMV is becoming increasingly nimble in updating its rules in response to developments in the technologies, applications, and federal regulation of automated driving. Good for them.”

Some consumer advocates had a different take.

“The new California DMV proposal wrongly relies on the federal government, when there are absolutely no federal motor vehicle safety standards applying specifically to autonomous vehicle technology,” said John Simpson, privacy project director at Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit that advocates for taxpayer and consumer interests, in a statement. He noted that the U.S. Dept. of Transportation’s recent “Vision for Safety 2.0” autonomous-car guidelines stress that they are completely voluntary.

California’s rules only apply to vehicles under 10,000 pounds, meaning that autonomous trucks are not legal here. DMV officials said those vehicles will be addressed separately.

Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: csaid@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @csaid

Posted In