New to California Roads: Cars with No Drivers Behind the Wheel?

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SACRAMENTO – State regulators on Friday proposed easing restrictions on testing autonomous driving systems, clearing a path for driver-free vehicles in California’s cities, towns and highways.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles allows testing of autonomous vehicles, but requires a driver behind the wheel. Tech companies and automakers have criticized the rules for slowing innovation.

The new proposal would allow manufacturers to test cars without drivers, as long as remote operators monitor the vehicles.

The proposal would push California ahead of other states and could pave the way for a new world of design and innovation in transportation. It would also boost Silicon Valley’s market position, as tech companies — ranging from Google’s Waymo, Tesla and Uber to a number of highly valued startups — seek to crack the engineering challenges of fully autonomous driving.

“This is the next step in eventually allowing driverless autonomous vehicles on California roadways,” DMV Director Jean Shiomoto said in a statement. The changes in the testing restrictions could come as early as this year.

Regulators say the proposed rules will balance public safety with the tech and automotive industries’ desires to revolutionize transit — from self-driving shuttle buses to luxury cars zipping commuters between home and work, with no input from passengers.

Transportation Agency Secretary Brian P. Kelly said the rules will allow the state to “get this right.”

But the proposal quickly drew criticism from various groups — for either going too slow or too fast.

The Association of Global Automakers, a consortium that includes Honda, Toyota and other major European and Asian manufacturers, said the the state is putting up “significant barriers that do not exist in other states.”

The new guidelines would include unnecessary reporting requirements that “will slow the development, testing and deployment of this life-saving technology,” the automakers said in a joint statement.

The Auto Alliance, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist for major domestic and foreign automakers, said it wants state regulators to reduce requirements that could delay bringing autonomous safety features into new vehicles.

But John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s privacy project director, said the current regulations do a better job of striking the right balance between safety and innovation. “The new rules are too industry friendly and don’t adequately protect consumers,” Simpson said.

The new proposal would lean on safety standards set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration while allowing more testing of driverless vehicles.

Some of its key features include fostering cooperation with industry and consumer groups to establish a framework for driverless testing and manufacturing guidance. It directs regulators to sort through licensing, registration and insurance requirements.

The DMV will also begin scrutinizing the marketing of driver-assist packages, said DMV Deputy Director Brian Soublet. Tesla has been criticized for how it promotes its driver-assist package known as Autopilot, which is not — as the name may imply — a fully autonomous system.

A Tesla spokesperson said the company will continue to work with the DMV.

“We are also pleased that the DMV removed the proposed restrictions around use of the name ‘Autopilot’,” the company said. “Our customers have made clear that they understand Autopilot’s intended use.”

The state is a top testing ground for manufacturers using autonomous technology. More than two dozen companies hold permits to try out their systems on California roads. Silicon Valley firms have focused resources and talent to address the complex engineering problems, involving computer learning, vision and artificial intelligence.

Representatives for Waymo and Uber said they were reviewing the proposal. Major tech companies are expected to be active during the public comment period.

Glen De Vos, chief technology officer of Delphi, said the new proposals match up with current advances in technology. The first batch of driverless vehicles is expected to roll out for limited use around 2020. Fully autonomous cars for everyday use are likely a decade away, he said.

Delphi, a supplier of parts and systems for major automakers, has done thousands of miles of autonomous vehicle testing in Silicon Valley. De Vos said automakers have accelerated the push for fully autonomous driving.

The DMV proposal, he said, “gives us a pathway to get there.”

The proposal will be open to comment for 45 days. A public hearing in Sacramento is scheduled for April 25. New rules are expected to be established by the end of the year.

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