SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California regulators asked members of the public Wednesday what they thought about proposed regulations that would — eventually — allow self-driving cars that lack a steering wheel or pedals on public roads.
For the most part, the message was the regulations still need a lot of work.
In a workshop at the state Capitol, the state's Department of Motor Vehicles heard criticism from representatives of companies developing the cars of the future, as well as skeptics who worry government is being pushed to embrace the technology before it is ready for the masses.
For now, self-driving cars are still prototypes, and California's roads and highways are their real-world testing grounds. The most bullish developers suggest the technology could be ready for market within a year or two.
The regulations that department officials drafted will govern how everyday people can get and use the cars once companies and federal regulators conclude they are safe. The rules are being closely watched nationally because they will govern California, not only a huge consumer market but also a place where Silicon Valley is leading development of the technology.
The department was supposed to have finalized the regulations by Jan. 1, 2015. Regulators have taken several more years to draft them, partly because the technology is so new and complex it is not clear how to ensure the cars are safe enough for widespread use.
In a first round of rules for prototype testing, regulators required a trained driver behind the wheel who could take over if needed. Now, the department is trying to balance safety with the interests of companies in a rapidly evolving industry that could transform how people get around.
In December, the department released an initial draft of regulations that required a licensed driver in self-driving vehicles. Companies including Alphabet, where the pioneering Google self-driving car project is housed, reacted with disappointment because the ultimate vision of many companies is a car without a wheel or pedals.
The department updated its proposal in September. The new language, the subject of Wednesday's hearing, pivoted regulators' position from cautious to bullish. Gone was the requirement of a licensed driver; California was open to permitting cars that could drive around without a person inside, as long as the federal government gave its blessing that the make and model is safe.
California Secretary of Transportation Brian Kelly explained the pivot in an interview by citing a close collaboration between the Department of Motor Vehicles and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in developing a model framework for state regulators. That framework was released in late September.
In a show of unity Wednesday, the top federal authorities on self-driving cars were among the first to speak at the workshop. They detailed their 112-page proposal, under which any self-driving car should pass a 15-point safety assessment before public use. Among other things, the assessment asks automakers to document how the car detects and avoids objects and pedestrians, how hardened it is against cyberattacks and how its backup systems will cope should the software fail.
While companies would not be required to submit to the federal safety assessment, several automaker representatives complained that California's proposal would effectively make it mandatory. Automakers want to self-certify the safety of their vehicles with minimal regulatory oversight, keeping with the federal model for human-driven cars.
At the same time, a representative of the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog group said California's proposal to adopt the federal approach did not go far enough — precisely because the safety assessment was not mandated.