California Opens Door to Fully Autonomous Vehicle Testing

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Those driverless test cars cruising California streets may soon, in fact, be driverless.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles on Friday posted its latest proposed regulations for testing and deploying fully autonomous vehicles in the Golden State. The long-awaited move—a 2012 law said the rules were supposed to be in place two years ago—set an administrative clock in motion that could mean the DMV will enact final rules by the end of the year.

One of the biggest changes from the draft regulations circulated last year is new language that allows companies to test a car without a driver—and, possibly, no steering wheel.

“This is the next step in eventually allowing driverless autonomous vehicles on California roadways” DMV director Jean Shiomoto said in a prepared statement.

 

The state’s 33-page proposal is now open for a 45-day public review and comment period. But a few things are already clear. Here are four takeaways.

California has embraced its new relationship with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

NHTSA guidelines released in September gave the federal government the lead role in setting product safety, testing and road-ready rules for autonomous vehicles. States were tasked with setting licensing, liability and insurance regulations.

That seems to be OK with California. Instead of requiring autonomous vehicle manufactures to prove separately to California regulators that their cars meet safety guidelines, for instance, the state’s proposed rules would allow them to provide a copy of the federal safety assessment letter they submit to the NHTSA.

The state’s new proposal “is a recognition that NHTSA is the organization pursuant to federal law that sets vehicle performance and safety standards,” Brian Soublet, the DMV’s general counsel, said in an interview with The Recorder on Friday. “We’re recognizing that separation of responsibilities. … It’s a recognition of what NHTSA put in the state model policy.”

Driverless carmakers will probably like the new rules better than the previous version.

Autonomous vehicle advocates criticized the DMV’s initial draft rules, released in August, as too restrictive.

“As it stands, the DMV’s proposal contains some provisions that will create significant barriers to the full-scale deployment of an autonomous fleet,” David Strickland, counsel for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, an industry group that includes Google Inc., Lyft Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc., said at a September hearing.

The new rules drop the requirement that a company test a driverless car for at least a year in the state before they apply to actually deploy it. Accident and autonomous vehicle-disengagement reporting requirements have been eased. Companies won’t have to get a city ordinance or resolution to test there under the new rules either. Instead they’ll have to notify local agencies of their plans and “coordinate” with them.

“Just imagine if you’re down in the Silicon Valley testing, and you’re in Mountain View and your vehicle goes riding through Mountain View and Burlingame and Menlo Park and Palo Alto and Santa Clara and San Bruno and San Mateo and Redwood City—could you imagine having to go and get an ordinance passed or a resolution passed by each one of those political entities?” Soublet said.

A spokeswoman for Waymo, Google’s spinoff self-driving vehicle company, declined to comment on the new rules. A message left with Uber was not returned.

Consumer advocates are not as happy with the proposal.

“The DMV’s current self-driving car test regulations set a standard for the nation, requiring a test driver behind a steering wheel who could take over, and vital public reports about testing activities,” said John Simpson, the privacy project director for Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog. “The new rules are too industry friendly and don’t adequately protect consumers.”

Current federal vehicle standards, which the state rules now defer to in some instances, haven’t been adequately adjusted for autonomous driving, Simpson said.

“The NHTSA safety checklist is meaningless because it doesn’t set any standards,” Simpson said. “It only asks that manufactures voluntarily say, ‘Yeah, we thought about this stuff.’”

Of course, nothing about these rules is set in stone.

The DMV is eager to get these rules on the books and has already set a public hearing on them for April 25, the day after the comment period ends.

Soublet said the agency is prepared to make modifications to the rules but doesn’t expect wholesale changes. The U.S. Department of Transportation may have its own plans, however. DOT Secretary Elaine Chao announced in February that her agency was reviewing the Obama administration’s guidance on autonomous vehicles with a possible eye toward revisions.