California Green-Lights Cars Without Drivers

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California Green-Lights Cars Without Drivers


February 26, 2018

California on Monday gave a green light to allowing robot cars with no drivers on state roads within weeks.

“This is a major step forward for autonomous technology in California,” Jean Shiomoto, director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles, said in a statement. “Safety is our top concern and we are ready to begin working with manufacturers that are prepared to test fully driverless vehicles in California.”

The DMV spent close to a year drafting regulations and seeking public input before submitting the rules to a legal-compliance agency, the state Office of Administrative Law, which approved them on Monday. Companies now can apply to the DMV for permits to test the driverless cars, with the first permits possible by April 2.

“We think that the California DMV rules for testing and deployment strike the right balance between safety and harnessing the autonomous vehicle innovation that’s taking place in California, and especially the Bay Area,” said Bert Kaufman, a spokesman for startup Zoox, one of dozens of local companies working on autonomous cars.

Several other states already allow no-driver robot cars. They include Arizona, where Waymo, an offshoot of Google parent Alphabet, is testing cars without drivers that soon will begin carrying taxi passengers.

California already allows testing of autonomous cars with backup drivers, and has 50 companies testing several hundred vehicles here.

The new rules for driverless cars leave judging the cars’ safety to the companies and federal regulators. Some consumer advocates said they are concerned that driverless cars are not yet ready for real-world roads.

Companies must self-certify that their cars can handle themselves without a human in the driver’s seat, and they must comply with all federal safety regulations. Cars that lack steering wheels, accelerators and other manual controls will need waivers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Cars — such as the ones currently being tested with backup drivers — that have those controls plus the addition of extra hardware and software to navigate autonomously may not need that extra approval.

There currently are no federal motor vehicle safety standards specific to autonomous cars, said Rosemary Shahan, executive director of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety. That means there are no federal rules about keeping the vehicles safe from hackers, or requiring them “to operate safely in all types of weather, or in construction zones that lack lane markings, or other road conditions that commonly arise,” she said in an email.

The DMV has other requirements, too. Cars must link to remote operators who monitor them and can steer them to the side of the road if need be (the remote-control function is to clear the roadway, not to avert accidents, as operators could not take over quickly enough). Companies must have $5 million in insurance. They must notify local authorities about whether they’ll test the car and have a plan for how to communicate with law enforcement.

The no-driver cars can carry employees of the companies that created them, as well as non-paying passengers. The DMV rules include a system for commercial deployment, such as robot taxi fleets, but such a deployment is more complex and most likely will only happen further down the road.

The rules apply only to vehicles up to 10,000 pounds. Rule-making for autonomous trucks will be the next step, the DMV said.

Some consumer advocates worry that California and the nation are rushing too quickly into new technology with the potential to cause accidents.

“The technology is like kids playing video games,” said John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog. “Based on the companies’ own disengagement reports (which say when cars needed a human backup driver to intervene), the technology is not far enough developed to allow these things on the road without a human driver capable of taking over.”

The DMV rules for consumer deployment of driverless cars are “very troubling,” he said, as they don’t require companies to submit disengagement reports and special crash reports. Such reports are required for test vehicles, both with and without backup drivers.

Congress is working on its own robot-car law, the AV Start Act, S1885, which could supersede California rules.

Carolyn Said is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @csaid

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