Californian road

California to permit completely driverless cars on its roads

Image credit: Dreamstime

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has approved new rules that will allow completely driverless cars to join California’s road, even without a human behind the wheel.

In 2014, California became the first state to introduce regulations for testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads. Although this allowed some companies to begin testing their autonomous vehicles in real-world surroundings, these regulations have been criticised for being too restrictive for a technology that is developing so rapidly, such as by requiring a human driver to be present in the car.

As a result, states which have adopted more liberal approaches to driverless car regulation – such as Arizona, Michigan and Nevada – have attracted testing on their roads.

After lengthy discussions, the new regulations will come into play on 2 April 2018, enabling cars without steering wheels and pedals to be deployed in California if the manufacturer can demonstrate that they are safe.

This will allow companies like Waymo, Apple, General Motors, Lyft and Uber – all of which are competing to bring driverless cars to market – to carry out continued testing on California’s roads, and perhaps to begin selling driverless rides to Californians. This could eventually eliminate the need for human taxi drivers.

“This is a major step forward for autonomous technology in California,” said Jean Shiomoto, director of the California DMV. “Safety is our top concern and we are ready to begin working with manufacturers that are prepared to test fully driverless vehicles in California.”

The DMV has not taken a completely laissez-faire approach to autonomous vehicles; companies must still retain “remote control” of their vehicles and must have a “law enforcement interaction plan” in case these vehicles are pulled over by police (such as by including instructions which explain how the remote human operator may be contacted).

The cars will also need to carry data recorders – similar to black box flight recorders – which can be retrieved in the case of a collision to help determine how it occurred.

Consumer Watchdog, a pressure group which has long opposed autonomous vehicles, criticised the loosening of rules and warned that it could turn driverless car trials into a “deadly video game that threatens highway safety”.

“A remote test operator will be allowed to monitor and attempt to control the robot car from afar,” said John M. Simpson, a group representative. “It will be just like playing a video game, except lives will be at stake.”

Already, some companies have begun to offer some driverless taxi services across the US. Lyft has been offering trips in Boston, Uber in Pittsburgh and Phoenix, and Waymo is moving forward with a similar service in Phoenix.

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