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California DMV Regulations Allow Self-Driving Cars with Licensed Drivers Present

Though the regulations would allow autonomous vehicles on the road, they would delay some of the technology's possible uses.

After years of testing, California has taken its first step toward putting cars that can drive themselves into the hands of its citizens — but state regulators have taken a cautious approach that will delay some theoretical benefits of the technology.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles released on Wednesday, Dec. 16, a first draft of its proposed regulations for the deployment of autonomous vehicles (AVs), keeping in place many of the same rules it developed when it put out regulations for the testing of that technology in May 2014. Perhaps most significant is that the regulations require 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. By extension of that rule, the department won’t allow the public use of any cars that are capable of driving themselves without a human behind the controls.

That thwarts a few proposed uses for autonomous vehicles that leaders in the field have been talking about for years, one of which is using the vehicles to provide personal transport for people who have long had a difficult time using it — the blind, the young and the elderly, for example. In 2012, Google published a YouTube video demonstrating that a self-driving car could transport a blind man to pick up his dry cleaning.

The exclusion of fully autonomous cars also stands in the way of the concept of car summoning — that is, the ability to pay for a vehicle that zips about from person to person without wasting as much time sitting idle in a parking lot.

Bernard Soriano, CIO of the California DMV, said during a conference call Wednesday morning that the department’s regulations don’t allow for that level of autonomy because of safety concerns. Regulators don’t believe fully autonomous cars have been through enough testing on public roads.

“The whole guiding principle to us in guiding these regulations … is to ensure that these vehicles are safe on California streets,” Soriano said during the call.

Instead, the department plans on releasing more regulatory packages in the coming years that will allow manufacturers to test cars without drivers on public streets. That, then, would someday lead to a green light for cars that can do more by themselves.

The draft regulations also:

  • Place responsibility for traffic violations — even while the vehicle is driving itself — in the hands of the car’s operator.
  • Call on AV manufacturers to earn safety and “behavioral competency” certifications from third-party testing companies. The state is asking researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, to conduct a peer review to come up with specific components of behavioral competency tests that will show a vehicle’s ability to respond to hazards and drive under normal conditions.
  • Require manufacturers to obtain driver permission for any information they collect.
  • Mandate that vehicles have the ability to detect cyberattacks and hand over control to the driver in the case of a security breach.
  • Ask manufacturers to submit monthly reports on performance, safety and usage data to the DMV.
  • Put a three-year lifespan on vehicle deployments, meaning that manufacturers would need to apply for a new permit every three years.
The department will hold two public workshops to gather input on the draft regulations. The first will take place at 10 a.m. on Jan. 28 at the Harper Alumni Center at California State University, Sacramento. The second will begin at 10 a.m. on Feb. 2 in the Junipero Serra Building’s Carmel Room in Los Angeles.

The draft regulations can be viewed here (PDF).

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.