Fully autonomous vehicles — without backup drivers — could be on California public roads by June or earlier, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles said Wednesday as it unveiled a new version of proposed rules.

The new draft regulations add requirements for companies testing self-driving cars to notify local authorities about where and when the testing will occur, but impose no requirement to ask for permission, the DMV said in a conference call.

Forty-two companies are already testing autonomous vehicles with backup drivers on California roads, using 285 vehicles, according to the DMV.

Also, firms testing autonomous vehicles with backup drivers will be required to use a standardized template for reporting “disengagements” that occur when the backup driver has to take over operation of the vehicle.

Under the rules, self-driving vehicles must meet federal safety requirements imposed by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Responsibility for motor vehicle safety resides at the federal level,” said Brian Soublet, the DMV’s chief lawyer.

On road safety, NHTSA has responsibility for regulating safety in the design and performance of vehicles, while states regulate drivers and vehicle operations.

But the federal government has offered only guidelines, not rules, on self-driving cars, failing to ensure public safety, advocacy group Consumer Watchdog said Wednesday.

“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 the group’s spokesman John Simpson.

“Automakers can glance at the NHTSA policy and say, ‘That’s nice,’ and then do whatever they want as they use our roads as private laboratories and threaten highway safety,” Simpson said.

California’s first move to regulate self-driving cars came with the release of draft regulations in 2015 that prohibited full autonomy — a backup driver was required in case of problems with the technology. Considerable pushback from the tech industry followed, and in September 2016, the DMV put out new proposed rules that would allow autonomous vehicles without a backup driver as long as the vehicles complied with federal regulations.

The final draft rules were published in March, followed by a 45-day public comment period and a public hearing in April.

A 15-day public comment period will follow Wednesday’s release of the new draft rules. DMV officials said the department hoped to submit final regulations by the end of the year, and that they could be approved by June or before.


Ethan Baron is a business reporter at The Mercury News, and a native of Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley. Baron has worked as a reporter, columnist, editor and photographer in newspapers and magazines for 25 years, covering business, politics, social issues, crime, the environment, outdoor sports, war and humanitarian crises.

Follow Ethan Baron @ethanbaron

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