A Win For The Robots: California Poised To Permit Human-Free Driverless Car Tests
In a big step on the journey to our robot-laden future, California is moving to permit companies that are developing self-driving cars to test them in the state with no human safety driver at the wheel.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles on Wednesday released a revised proposal for rules governing the operation of robotic vehicles in the state that has more of them than anywhere else. The biggest change – barring further revisions after a 15-day public comment period – is to allow companies for the first time to apply to conduct tests on public roads in California sans human.
“We consider that we’ve always been the leader in the testing of these vehicles,” Brian Soublet, California DMV’s deputy director and chief counsel, said on a conference call. Although some states have may have moved faster to ease rules, “all indicators are it’s continuing to grow in California,” he said.
The action comes as Congress moves to create federal rules governing the operation of driverless cars that advocates say will usher in an unprecedented era of convenience for passengers and reductions in on-road fatalities. Companies including Alphabet’s Waymo, General Motors, Ford, Tesla and Uber have poured billions of dollars into perfecting the technology to carve out a leadership position as it transitions from testing to commercial operation in the next few years.
California currently has 285 self-driving vehicles that are permitted to operate on public roads, fielded by 42 auto and tech companies, according to the DMV. Since regulations currently require a human at the wheel in case of problems, there are also about 1,000 permitted test drivers for those vehicles.
States including Arizona, Michigan and Florida have modified rules to attract more companies to deploy autonomous vehicles, and that appears to be motivating California, said driverless industry consultant Grayson Brulte.
“California is clearly on defense trying to defend the state’s position as a leader in autonomous vehicle testing,” said Brulte, whose company is based in Beverly Hills. “It is a significant step toward the future of mobility.”
Among revisions the state made to previously proposed autonomous testing rules: A significantly higher registration fee.
Currently, companies are charged $150 a year for a permit to test robotic vehicles in the state. (Uber, under its former autonomous car chief Anthony Levandowski, inexplicably refused to comply with this rule when the company attempted to test vehicles in San Francisco in December.) That fee would now rise to $3,600 for a two-year autonomous test permit.
Waymo, the company created last year to commercialize Google’s self-driving car program, runs a large, public test of its latest vehicles in suburban Phoenix. Although Waymo’s autonomous minivans have safety drivers at the wheel and offers the service for free to pre-registered riders, a recent report suggested the Alphabet unit will soon operate the service as a commercial venture — and ditch its human backup.
While it hasn’t commented on that report, Waymo this week kicked off the first public ad campaign promoting the safety gains that will come with self-driving cars. The effort, dubbed “Let’s Talk Self-Driving,” is being done in conjunction with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the National Safety Council and the Federation for Blind Children.
California initially proposed modifications to its testing rules early this year, and the latest version reflects input from “manufacturers, consumer advocates, local government, insurance companies and other stakeholders,” the DMV said. They also take into account modified guidelines from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that came out in September, DMV said.
A U.S. Senate panel last week unanimously approved a bill to allow deployment of self-driving cars without humans hovering at the wheel — and which would prevent states from setting rules barring that. It followed approval of similar legislation in the House of Representatives in September.