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California DMV Considers Reworked Regs for AV Delivery Tests

The California Department of Motor Vehicles is considering new regulatory language to allow for the testing of light-duty delivery vehicles on public streets.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California is moving a little closer to allowing self-driving delivery vehicles to shuttle packages from companies like Amazon or even restaurant takeout orders.

The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles heard comments on May 30 regarding new regulations that would establish the testing of autonomous light-duty delivery vehicles with a gross weight of less than 10,001 pounds.

The comments Thursday at DMV headquarters came from industry representatives, business groups, transportation planning officials and others. Most encouraged the DMV to move forward with setting up rules that would allow for the testing. The state already allows for the testing of other forms of autonomous vehicles.

“We see this as a job-creator for the state,” Judy Kruger, director of industry cluster development in aerospace and advanced transportation at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, told the DMV during the hearing. “As we all know, California is way ahead of the curve in good policy, clean energy policy and also all things very innovative, electric, autonomous. And we see this regulation as supporting this industry, that supports job growth.”

The DMV should tweak the testing regulations to allow for the safe operation of vehicles at the curb space, said Katie Angotti, principal policy analyst with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA).

“Curbside behavior has generated many safety incidents in the past,” said Angotti, noting many of the incidents involved cyclists.

SFMTA does not object to the testing of AV delivery vehicles on California streets, Angotti told Brian Soublet, chief counsel and deputy director of the California Department of Motor Vehicles, who chaired the hearing. However, the companies testing should demonstrate — via documentation — that the vehicles can stop and serve the curb space safely.

High-density cities like San Francisco and New York have been inundated with both delivery and ride-hailing vehicles, all vying for limited curbspace and often leading to double parking and exacerbating traffic congestion.

SFMTA asks that the DMV “expand not only the permissible vehicles that can be tested, but also the public accountability and reporting requirements,” said Angotti.

Specifically, SFMTA wants the vehicles to display the name of the manufacturer as well as contact information, “so that members of the public can effectively report their observations about AV delivery vehicles testing on public roads directly to the DMV,” she explained. 

These added requirements will “allow our local traffic engineers to consider modifying local regulations related to stopping and parking limitations to improve safety and better facilitate the safe integration of AVs with local traffic,” Angotti added. 

The DMV will consider the comments and possibly alter the regulatory language, said Soublet. If the DMV does make changes to the proposal, there will be another comment period put on the books, with the final rules established soon after.

One of the DMV’s requirements would prevent the companies testing from receiving compensation during the test phase, a move generally supported by the AV industry and others. 

“Assessing AVs’ functionality should be the primary focus while testing AVs on public roads,” said Xantha Bruso, manager of autonomous vehicle policy at AAA Northern California, Utah and Nevada, in her comments at the hearing. “Working to satisfy customer demands while the vehicle is still testing could detract from that focus, and potentially compromise safety.”

Candice Plotkin, lead counsel for regulatory policy at Cruise Automation, a maker of AV technologies in San Francisco, asked the DMV to allow delivery providers partnering with Cruise to collect fees related to their business operations on deliveries made by an AV.

“So if we were to partner with Grubhub or DoorDash or any of these established partners, they have certain costs that they already incur,” Plotkin explained.

“I’m arguing that those fees that they already charge that’s based on their business costs, they should not have to change their business model as long as we, the AV manufacturer, do not receive any portion of those fees that they are charging,” she added. 

Not everyone supported the regulatory change, which would open the door to driverless deliveries.

“We believe that this proposal is unnecessary, costly, and potentially dangerous,” said Matt Broad, a legislative advocate for the firm Broad and Gusman. Broad was speaking Thursday on behalf of the Teamsters union in Sacramento, which represents some 100,000 UPS drivers across the state.

“These drivers are in high-paid, stable, middle class jobs,” said Broad. “We fear with this sort of deployment of these vehicles, our drivers may be automated out of the workforce.” 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.