SAN FRANCISCO — Look Ma, no hands!
Under newly proposed California self-driving car rules, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles will let companies test autonomous vehicles that lack that quintessential car component, the steering wheel.
What else can they shed? Brake pedals and (human) drivers, anywhere in the car.
Once the cars have been tested either on a closed track or through computer modeling, self-driving cars will be able to tool around California roads without drivers or even the ability to be driven by a driver.
Prior to this, autonomous vehicles had to have a driver sitting ready to take charge at any second should anything go wrong.
Instead, manufacturers will now have to submit an application, certify there's a communication link to the vehicle, provide a copy of their plans for any interactions with local law enforcement, create a training program for remote operators and get a safety assessment letter from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In a shift, companies will no longer have to get permission from the jurisdiction where they plan to test the cars but instead simply notify them in writing.
The proposed regulations were published Friday and the public now has until April 24 to comment on them. The new rules could take effect in 2018.
They're in response to frustrations that California was moving too slowly in the race to develop these pilot-less cars, potentially losing ground to other, friendlier, states. Currently both Florida and Michigan allow autonomous vehicles to be tested with few restrictions and Arizona has almost no rules at all governing them. Twenty-one manufacturers are testing autonomous vehicles in California.
“These rules protect public safety, promote innovation and lay out the path for future testing and deployment of driverless technology. This rulemaking is the next step in working with stakeholders to get this right,” California Transportation Agency Secretary Brian Kelly said in a statement.
Consumer groups say proposed rules are too lax.
They “kick many of the safety enforcement issues to the federal government, requiring that any robot car deployed must certify that it meets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards," said John Simpson, privacy project director at Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest group.
There are no federal safety standards that explicitly apply to autonomous vehicles, he said.
Because of this, the safety check list is meaningless. "It only asks that manufacturers voluntarily say, ‘Yeah, we thought about this stuff,'” he said.