California is Warming Up to Self-Driving Cars Without a Human Driver

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A little over a year ago, the California Department of Motor Vehicles issued draft regulations that would have put the kibosh on autonomous vehicles without a human driver, such as Google’s steering wheel-less prototype. Today, the agency reversed itself, putting out proposed rules that would not only allow for the testing of self-driving cars without a human driver, but also regulate the manufacture and sale of fully autonomous vehicles.

But the DMV argues that it hasn’t changed its attitude about self-driving cars. As long as these robot cars are compliant with federal rules governing safety, and as long as they are “programed” to obey California traffic laws, then they are okay by California’s book. Recently, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that the computer inside a self-driving car can be considered the "driver" of the vehicle. The California DMV, it would seem, is shifting responsibility to the federal government to ensure fully self-driving cars are safe and road-ready.

“If you program your vehicle to obey the law, it’s not going to run over pedestrians, or crash into other vehicles,” said Brian Soublet, chief counsel at the California DMV, in a conference call with reporters today. “I don’t want to say we’re comfortable. We believe we’re requiring certification from the manufacturers that they’re ready and that the vehicles themselves are able to operate without causing some harm.”

To be sure, this isn’t a clear path for fully autonomous vehicles to overrun the streets of California. Manufacturers would still need to receive approval or a waiver for exemption from the federal government before operating a vehicle on public roads without a human driver or conventional controls like a steering wheel or pedals.
"the competition to host self-driving car companies heats up"

But it does reflect an evolution in California’s thinking about autonomous vehicles, especially as the competition to host car and tech companies looking to test these vehicles heats up. Texas and Arizona have already positioned themselves as attractive regulatory environments, which has allowed them to attract the likes of Google, Uber, and Toyota.

That said, California still hosts the largest number of companies testing autonomous vehicles, as evidenced by the number of licensees under the program. Over two dozen companies are currently registered in the state’s program. Companies that test self-driving cars on public roads are required to report any accidents that occur, as well as the number of times the vehicle forced the human driver to take control because it couldn’t safely navigate the conditions on the road.

This disengagement rate is then disclosed publicly by the DMV. Some companies, like Google, use the disengagement rate to highlight its improving technology. Others seem to want to avoid having to publicize this information, like Uber.

Recently, the DMV butted heads with Uber over the ride-hail company’s unwillingness to sign up for the permit. The DMV revoked the registration of Uber’s self-driving cars, prompting Uber to cancel its public test. Uber then moved its fleet to Arizona, but recently acquiesced and registered for California’s program.

Waymo, the Google self-driving spinoff, declined to comment on the new rules until it had the chance to review them. Others were less circumspect. John Sampson, the privacy director at Consumer Watchdog and a vocal critic of self-driving cars, called the proposal “too industry friendly [that doesn’t] adequately protect consumers.”

The DMV said its new rules wouldn’t apply to trucks or motorcycles, and that it expects to issue new guidance on self-driving trucks at a future date.

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