California has inched one step closer to permitting the testing of fully driverless vehicles on its public roads, a development that could come as soon as 2018. Officials with the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles have unveiled long-awaited revisions of proposed regulations that pave the way for further testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles in the state, including those that no longer have human drivers.
Despite a few minor changes, the proposed regulations are consistent with those outlined by the California DMV earlier this year. Manufacturers and other members of the public have 15 days to comment on this latest version of the regulations before they’re formally submitted for rubber stamping. Barring the need for further changes, the regulations could take effect by the middle of next year.
“The goal is to have them submitted by the end of the year, and we’d anticipate they’d be in effect in June 2018,” said Brian Soublet, the DMV’s chief counsel. “It could be sooner, but it’s contingent upon when the regulations are approved.”
Currently, California’s regulations require a human safety driver behind the wheel of all autonomous test vehicles. Once finalized, the new regulations will allow manufacturers that hold permits to test autonomous vehicles without a driver behind a steering wheel. That includes ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, which will be allowed to operate rides for regular members of the public as long as they don’t charge fees.
Businesses, especially those that plan to operate cars without traditional controls such as steering wheels and brake pedals, have given the revised regulations a warm response. A spokesperson for Waymo said, “We welcome the steps the California DMV is taking to permit both testing and deployment in the state.” David Strickland, general counsel for the autonomy-related lobbying group Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, said he is “encouraged” by the DMV’s progress.
The revisions come at a pivotal time in the advent of a legal structure surrounding automated cars. At the federal level, Congress is considering legislation that would permit the deployment of as many as 80,000 automated cars per manufacturer that don’t conform to existing federal motor-vehicle safety standards over a three-year period. Further, proposed U.S. Senate legislation affirms the federal government’s role as a vehicle safety regulator and, if enacted, would supersede individual states’ autonomous-vehicle laws and regulations. That’s advantageous for manufacturers, because they don’t want to face a patchwork of state-by-state laws governing the use of autonomous cars.
On its face, California’s regulations complement the proposed federal law. They recognize the authority of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in setting safety standards and merely stipulate that manufacturers testing autonomous vehicles in California must certify they meet federal standards or hold an exemption to them. The DMV also wants manufacturers to send it a copy of the same safety assessments they send the federal regulators.”
But that may be a hollow requirement. When the U.S. Department of Transportation unveiled its own policy on automated vehicles in September, it made it clear that submitting a safety assessment was voluntary, not mandatory. And there are no existing federal safety standards that apply to automated-vehicle technology.
“Under the Trump administration approach, 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,” said John Simpson, privacy director at Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit that has closely tracked automated-vehicle development. “The DMV’s current self-driving-car test regulations set a standard for the nation. It’s imperative that California continue to protect us when the feds won’t do their job.”
California put its own regulations in place in September 2014, and since the state is a hotbed for autonomous testing, those rules have shaped the fledgling safety culture at this outset of an autonomous era of travel. Nowhere is that clearer than in California’s requirement that manufacturers submit documents related to the disengagement of autonomous technology during testing, whether machine initiated or because a driver intervened.
These documents aren’t perfect. At best, they offer a snapshot of statistics, not necessarily insight as to whether a disengagement occurred during easy highway miles or more aggressive testing of complex scenarios. Nonetheless, the reports are the most transparent measure regulators or members of the public have to gauge the competence of self-driving systems in the United States, and they could offer more insight going forward. Or not.
As part of its revised regulations, California redesigned the disengagement-report format in the hope of gleaning more information, with new fields to note whether the disengagements occurred in urban or interstate environments, whether or not a driver was present, and a description of facts surrounding the disengagement. The California DMV’s Soublet said the added specificity will help analysts see “some commonality” within the data.
But it’s unclear whether the pending federal legislation’s provisions on pre-emption, which gives federal law precedence over state and local laws, could curtail California’s ability to collect these disengagement forms. Asked about that possibility on Wednesday, Soublet did not dismiss that possibility. “We haven’t thought about that,” he said. “But our concern always is having information, specifically in testing, to ensure safe operations and [know] whether they’re obeying traffic laws and what the problems may be.”
Both automakers and tech companies frequently grumble about the necessity of the disengagement reports, because they’d prefer not to share testing data they consider proprietary. Last December, Uber tussled with the California DMV after testing automated tech without first getting a permit—a circumvention that many surmised was Uber’s intent to avoid filing disengagement reports. But the reports haven’t slowed the growth of testing in California. In June 2016, 11 companies were permitted to test there. Today, there are 42 companies testing 285 automated vehicles on the state’s roads.
Among other updates in its regulations, the California DMV has added further clarification of which local authorities need to be notified of testing plans and notes that they should be provided information on the date, time, and roads on which testing will occur. They specify that information on the vehicle’s automated systems should be made available to law enforcement, although there’s no requirement that the vehicles have that information available onboard. And they mandate that vehicles be connected so that manufacturers can communicate with them from remote operations centers.
Unlike other states that have given manufacturers clearance to test with far more lax laws and regulations, California’s rules are often viewed as onerous. But Soublet said it matters that autonomous vehicles are rolled out in a deliberate and meticulous fashion.
“It’s all the things you talk about with the benefits of autonomous technology,” he said. “Safety and reduced traffic accidents, mobility for people who don’t have those options now, the promise of first-mile and last-mile solutions, reducing congestion on the roadways. All those things. That’s kind of why it matters.”