Ghost Cars Could Be Gliding Down Sacramento Streets By Year’s End

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Cars with no one in them may be cruising downtown streets as early as the end of this year if city and state motor vehicle officials have their way.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles plans to issue rules this year that will allow automakers and tech companies to test autonomous vehicles for the first time on public streets with no one behind the wheel, marking a major step for what many say will be the transportation revolution.

Currently in California, about 30 companies are permitted to test robot cars on city streets and highways. Current state rules require a backup “driver” to be seated behind the wheel to take control if something goes wrong with the computers, cameras, radar and light-based radar devices that typically guide robot cars.

DMV regulators say they believe the new rules strike a balance of advancing the technology and making sure the testing is done safely. Autonomous car companies complain the rules are too rigid, though, while consumer advocates say the state is looking out enough for public safety. DMV officials conducted a final public hearing in Sacramento on Tuesday, and say they now will finalize regulations they hope to have in place by the end of November.

Under the proposed rules, the state will allow robot cars in test mode on city streets, without anyone in them, under certain conditions:

• The testing company must notify and “coordinate” with that particular city. The state had proposed requiring companies to obtain city approval to test cars without drivers, but it backed off after industry lobbying.

• The proposed regulations say there must be a “communication link” between the vehicle and a “remote operator” who would monitor the vehicle while it is being controlled by its on-board computer.

• Also, the test company must have a way of letting others on the street know who car owner is, if that vehicle is in a crash. They must provide police a way to deactivate the car and communicate with the car company. The car must carry proof of insurance.

The proposed regulations also will lay out the path for auto companies to obtain permits to sell fully autonomous cars in California. That includes presenting the state with test data that show the vehicle has successfully operated on streets. The state is not imposing a time period on testing of the cars. That means an autonomous car company can apply with the DMV for a permit to sell its cars or use them for commercial purposes at any point after the regulations are readied this year.

Industry leaders say it may be years before fully autonomous vehicles are ready for sale to the general public. Several manufacturers say cars likely will increasingly add automated capabilities over time. Paul Hemmersbaugh, an executive with General Motors and former chief council for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who attended the Sacramento hearing Tuesday, said there are too many variables to be able to predict when the transition will begin.

“I think a reasonable guesstimate might be that some manufacturer might be ready to commercially deploy some significant number of (autonomous vehicles) in two to five years. It will take a much longer time – if it ever happens – for AVs to substantially displace traditional motor vehicles and predominate in the U.S. motor vehicle fleet.”

Sacramento city officials meanwhile are pushing to become a test lab for the new technology. Last week, Mayor Darrell Steinberg, Rep. Doris Matsui and Kings basketball team general partner Vivek Ranadive held a meeting with members of the industry to encourage those companies to locate tests here.

In a letter to the DMV this week, Steinberg extolled the potential safety benefits of computer-controlled cars and the ability the new technology will give the blind, disabled and elderly to get around.

“We want California, and more specifically Sacramento, to be the first place where all types of (connected and autonomous vehicles) are interoperably deployed in a real-world environment so we can evaluate and set safety standards in a way that promotes innovation and public private partnerships,” Steinberg wrote.

The California DMV process is being closely watched by the tech, automotive, and insurance industries nationally. California isn’t the only major testing ground for autonomous vehicles, however. Google’s autonomous car offshoot, Waymo, announced on Tuesday that it is looking for residents in Phoenix, Ariz., to volunteer to begin using autonomous Waymo test vehicles for their daily transportation.

The debate in Sacramento this week is over how much or how little DMV should regulate the new industry.

The Global Automakers group – which represents Ferrari, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Subaru, Aston Martin and others – is among those warning the DMV against imposing regulations that could set up a future situation where cars legal in other other states are not allowed in California. They also say they worry the state could unintentionally make it harder for California consumers to obtain safety upgrades for their cars on a timely basis.

Ridesharing companies, for their part, say the state should allow them to test cars now with paying customers in them. And officials with Waymo have argued against requiring robot cars to have steering wheels. The DMV currently requires steering wheels, but in its proposed new rules, it proposes taking a half-step back, saying companies can go without steering wheels if they obtain special OK from federal regulators.

The tech industry is countered by consumer safety groups. Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica-based group, argued this week that proposed DMV rules “are are too industry-friendly and don’t adequately protect consumers.” And Rosemary Shahan of Sacramento-based Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety pointed out that the auto industry has a long history of hiding safety defects on their vehicles.

Test companies

Companies that have permits to test autonomous vehicles in California:

  • Apple Inc.
  • AutoX Technologies Inc.
  • Baidu USA LLC
  • BMW
  • Bosch
  • CarOne LLC
  • Delphi Automotive
  • Inc.
  • Faraday & Future Inc.
  • Ford
  • GM Cruise LLC
  • Google
  • Honda
  • Mercedes Benz
  • Navya Inc.
  • NextEV USA Inc.
  • Nissan
  • Nuro Inc.
  • Nvidia Corp.
  • PlusAI Inc.
  • Renovo Motors Inc.
  • Subaru
  • Telenav Inc.
  • Tesla Motors
  • UATC LLC (Uber)
  • Udacity Inc
  • Valeo North America Inc.
  • Volkswagen Group of America
  • Wheego Electric Cars Inc.
  • Zoox Inc.

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