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California DMV Embraces Fully Driverless Cars in Proposed Rules

The state is moving toward a future where cars can operate without humans.

by / October 3, 2016
A blind man sits in a Google prototype autonomous vehicle that lacks a steering wheel and other human controls. Screenshot/Google Self-Driving Car Project

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has opened the door to fully driverless, steering wheel-less cars.

On Sept. 30 the department released a revised draft of proposed regulations that would, unlike the original version, create a path for cars that humans can’t manually operate. The rules, which came 10 days after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) laid out large pieces of a plan to regulate the vehicles, would require manufacturers to report testing data to the state prior to deployment.

The previous version of the rules required a human driver to be present in the vehicle and capable of taking over at any time. That requirement is still in place, but only if the manufacturer doesn’t hold a permit to test or deploy a vehicle without a driver.

For those that do hold the new permits, the rules would mean opening up a wide new world of possibilities in transportation. By their nature, driverless cars could bring more mobility to people who are sorely lacking it at present — people with disabilities, the elderly, the young and those who simply can’t afford it. The vehicles might also help cut down congestion, use existing infrastructure more efficiently, reduce transportation costs and curb pollution. Many have speculated that, once vehicles gain the ability to drive themselves, cities could be redesigned to give more space to people and less to vehicles.

One big caveat in the California DMV proposal: As with all cars, driverless vehicles would still need to comply with the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, which include language requiring, among other things, a steering wheel and human-operated brakes. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has repeatedly said that NHTSA has authority to exempt certain vehicles from those rules, but there’s a limit on the number of exemptions the agency can hand out — far fewer than the number of sales a major auto manufacturer would expect in any given year.

“It is becoming clear that existing NHTSA authority is likely insufficient to meet the needs of the time and reap the full safety benefits of automation technology,” reads a document NHTSA released earlier this year.

The California DMV proposal would require manufacturers to first obtain a permit to test driverless cars and then complete at least one year’s worth of testing before they would be eligible for a permit to deploy the vehicles en masse. The year of testing would include a report to the DMV about instances in which the vehicles “disengaged” from autonomous driving mode, meaning there was some failure of the equipment or technology, or otherwise that the manufacturer saw a need to intervene while the car was driving itself and override the self-driving software.

Vehicles would also need to have data-recording devices to keep information about conditions before and after a crash. Manufacturers would need to provide that data to law enforcement after an accident.

The new rule draft also narrows the kinds of vehicles the state would allow manufacturers to make autonomous. The draft would prohibit testing and deployment of autonomous:

  • motorcycles;
  • buses;
  • general public paratransit vehicles; and
  • most semitrucks, based on weight and length restrictions.

The DMV will hold a public hearing on the revised rules on Oct. 19 in Sacramento.

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