No Driverless Cars In California? Why April 2 Won’t Make History

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No Driverless Cars In California? Why April 2 Won’t Make History


March 29, 2018

No driverless cars in California? Why April 2 won’t make history

Self-driving cars were supposed to make history on Monday, April 2, when for the first time, they were allowed to operate on California roads without any human vehicle assistants.

But, good luck finding any of the driverless cars on your local streets.

That’s because of the approximately 50 companies in the state said to be working on self-driving cars, not a single one has applied to the California Department of Motor Vehicles for the permits necessary to send a car without a driver, or assistant in the passenger seat, out onto the state’s roads. And it doesn’t appear that anyone in the self-driving car industry is in a rush to submit the paperwork that would let them put a fully autonomous car out among the 14.5 million automobiles that were registered in California as of 2016.

“The DMV has the authority to begin issuing driverless testing and or deployment permits for autonomous vehicles on April 2,” said a DMV spokesperson, in a statement given to this news organization. “To date, no one has applied for either permit. If we receive an application, it will be reviewed.”

In February, after the state’s Office of Administrative Law approved allowing fully driverless cars on state roads, DMV director Jean Shiomoto called the event “a major step forward for autonomous technology in California,” which seemed to suggest that cars without drivers might soon be as common as any other vehicle on the highway.

Sensors on self-driving cars — which may include laser-based technology, radar and video — are designed to sense pedestrians and other obstructions even in the dark. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File) AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar/File

However, last week’s accident in Tempe, Arizona, in which an Uber self-driving car with a vehicle assistant on board struck and killed a pedestrian crossing a street at night, appears to have slowed the race to be the first on California roads with a truly driverless vehicle.

Uber immediately suspended testing of its self-driving cars on public roads across the United States and Canada following the accident in Tempe.

Sarah Abboud, an Uber spokesperson, said the company had no comment about fully self-driving cars being legal in California on April 2 because it is currently “heads down” in cooperating with the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which are investigating the accident.

But whether or not Uber was going to apply for a full self-driving car permit is immaterial. The state DMV said Tuesday that Uber had decided not to renew its current California permit to test self-driving cars when it expires on March 31. The DMV said Uber now will have to apply for a new permit should it want to again test self-driving cars on the state’s roads.

“This application process isn’t pro forma, either,” said John Simpson, privacy and technology project director at Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan group that has been critical of rapid growth in the self-driving car industry.

“The DMV has the ability to reject a permit, and we think they should go farther and have a complete moratorium on all public road testing,” Simpson said. “We don’t believe these things are ready to be put on the road without a driver of any kind.”

Lyft, Uber’s biggest rival in the ride-sharing industry, didn’t return a request for comment about any plans it has for testing fully self-driving cars on public roads in California.

This Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, photo provided by Waymo shows a Chrysler Pacifica minivan that are equipped with Waymo’s self-driving car technology, being tested at Waymo’s facility in Atwater, Calif. (Julia Wang/Waymo via AP) (Julia Wang/Waymo via AP)

But, Lyft has been busy on the self-driving car front this month, announcing it would begin testing autonomous vehicles at the 5,000-acre GoMentum Station facility in Concord, as well as take a $200 million investment from, and partner with, Canadian auto parts maker Magna on new self-driving car technologies.

Waymo, the self-driving car business that Google spun out in late 2016, made headlines Tuesday when company Chief Executive John Krafcik unveiled plans for building an all-electric, driverless car with Jaguar. Krafcik said Waymo would begin service with the Jaguar I-Pace cars in Phoenix this year.

But, when it comes to California, Waymo isn’t in a rush to get its cars on the road.

“Waymo would like to eventually test and eventually deploy driverless vehicles in CA,” said a Way spokesperson, “and we’ll take the steps necessary to do so.”

The only question now, for all of these companies, is when.


Rex Crum is the senior web editor for the business section for The Mercury News and Bay Area News Group. He also writes about business and technology for the publications’ print and web editions, and has covered business and technology for nearly two decades. A native of Seattle, he remains a diehard Seahawks and Mariners fan and is imparting his fandom to his Oakland-native wife and two young daughters.

Follow Rex Crum @rexcrum

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