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California's Revised Driverless Vehicle Rules Nix Human Driver Requirement

The California DMV has released the third iteration of regulations for the testing and deployment of autonomous vehicles on Friday, March 10.

by / March 10, 2017
Bernard Soriano, left, and Brian Soublet, right, representatives of the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Ben Miller

The California DMV has taken another step to safely prepare for a driverless car future, releasing on Friday, March 10, amended autonomous vehicle regulations that have one primary change from the previous rules: They scrap the requirement that a licensed driver be on board vehicle and capable of taking over when necessary.

Although reluctant to say that the department is “comfortable” with the technology’s progress, the agency believes that if manufacturers follow the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) and certify that the vehicles have gone through extensive testing to see how they react and respond to roadway situations, they will be ready to apply for a permit that allows for driverless testing.

“The proposed regulations amend the existing testing regulation to allow for testing of completely driverless autonomous vehicles,” said DMV Deputy Director Bernard Soriano on a call to discuss the rules. “Such testing will provide real-world validation of autonomous vehicle capabilities, promote innovation and develop further public understanding of autonomous technology while addressing public safety concerns.”

The release of the regulations begins a 45-day public comment period where representatives from industry, trade groups, local government, insurance companies and other stakeholders can voice concerns and make recommendations. According to DMV Chief Counsel Brian Soublet, the department is hoping to finalize the amended rules by the end of the year.

The amended regulations also define deployment as operations of an autonomous vehicle by members of the public, including the sale or lease of the vehicle, charging a fee for transportation services, or otherwise making the vehicle available outside of a testing program.

Although the requirement for a physical driver inside the vehicle is no more, there must be a two-way communication feature for a remote operator to either take control of the vehicle or guide passengers on how to guide the car to safety. Disengagement and collision data will still need to be provided to the state, despite some manufactures expressing displeasure at this requirement.

This opens the doors for vehicles that do not feature traditional driving components, including a steering wheel and/or pedals. So long as the manufacturer has been given a waiver for the FMVSS, the vehicle will be legal to operate on California roads.

Other requirements include:

  • Reducing the timeframe for which a self-driving permit is valid from three years to two;
  • Prohibits manufacturers of AVs from advertising the sale or lease of a vehicle as autonomous, when it does not meet the DMV’s definition in the vehicle code section 227.02;
  • Address other key topics related to autonomous vehicle deployment, including driver licensing and vehicle registration;
  • AV manufacturers will no longer be required to provide AV sensor data to local law enforcement if requested, but may be forced to if under subpoena or there is a warrant; and
  • Manufacturers will have to provide a copy of the 15-point safety assessment letter sent to NHTSA to the DMV.

The state first released AV regulations in December 2015. These rules required a licensed driver who has obtained a certificate to drive an AV be sitting behind the wheel and capable of taking over driving if necessary. The DMV revised its rules in October 2016 largely in response to the Automated Vehicle Safety Guidance issued by NHTSA, which included data sharing recommendations.

“These rules protect public safety, promote innovation and lay out the path for future testing and deployment of driverless technology,” said Secretary of the California Transportation Agency Brian P. Kelly. “This rulemaking is the next step in working with stakeholders to get this right.”

After the 45-day public comment period, the DMV will hold a public hearing session in Sacramento on April 25.

Ryan McCauley Former Staff Writer

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.

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