California to relax driverless car testing laws

California is to remove restrictions on companies that want to test self-driving cars on public roads in the state under newly revised draft regulations.

One of the most significant regulatory changes is allowing for the absence of a driver in some circumstances, provided there is two-way communication with the vehicle.

The state introduced a ruling at the end of last year which allowed for driverless vehicles to operate on its road under the proviso that the vehicles came equipped with a steering wheel should anything go wrong. 

Google expressed disappointment at the time saying that the ruling was restrictive and would slow deployment of the technology. Moreover, disabled groups complained that the requirement of a driver in the car hurt the very people that autonomous vehicles would most benefit.

Nevertheless, California has been at the forefront of the fast-growing autonomous vehicle industry, fueled by technology companies in Silicon Valley, and is one of a handful of states to have passed regulations enabling self-driving car testing on public roads.

Currently, 15 companies have permits to drive autonomous vehicles on public roads in the state, provided there is a licensed driver in the car.

Now, carmakers will have to certify that they have met a 15-step safety assessment issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That safety assurance means self-driving cars will no longer be required to be tested by a third-party, as in the original proposal.

The changes also prohibit advertising semi-autonomous systems like enhanced cruise control and lane-assist systems using terms like "autonomous" or "self-driving." The systems help steer and keep vehicles in lanes, but still require a human to remain engaged.

Such partially autonomous systems, which transfer control of the vehicle between the driver and the car and vice versa, have come under scrutiny since a fatality in May involving a Tesla driver using the company's Autopilot semi-autonomous system. 

Some consumer groups and others have criticised the Silicon Valley electric car maker for the choice of the name Autopilot, which could suggest that the technology does not require a driver's intervention. Mobileye, which develops collision avoidance systems, split with the company in July citing its lax attitude to passenger safety. 

The draft regulations face a new period of public comment before being finalised.

John Zimmer, the co-founder of the smartphone-based ride-sharing company Lyft, recently claimed that driverless taxi services will be made available to consumers in as little as five years. 

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