Health Care

California plans to allow autonomous cars without backup drivers

California plans to allow autonomous cars without backup drivers

Advocacy group Consumer Watchdog has called for the California DMV to disallow self-driving vehicles to operate without a driver behind the wheel until NHTSA passes enforceable standards for the cars.

That doesn't mean you'll be able to buy a completely driverless vehicle next year, or even hitch a ride in one.

"This amendment was necessary because requiring the technology to be "both remote and on board" could be unnecessarily limiting on the development of the technology; changing it to "and/or" provides the flexibility that the technology can reside either entirely, or partially, on or off-board", the DMV said of the rule changes. "Today's action continues the department's efforts to complete these regulations by the end of the year".

That framework, which could be tweaked in coming weeks, also would let companies begin testing prototypes with neither a steering wheel nor pedals — and indeed nobody at all inside.

The DMV is also including a requirement that the autonomous vehicle be remotely monitored if there isn't a driver physically in the auto.

California's proposed rules must still undergo a 15-day public comment period, which could result in further changes, and then a protracted review by other state attorneys. Those critics have said states with softer regulations were attracting companies for driverless testing and putting California's reputation as the nation's technology innovation leader at risk.

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The regulations leave matters like vehicle safety to the federal government.

The proposed regulations recognize that responsibility for motor vehicle safety resides at the federal level, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is vested with the authority to develop and enforce compliance with Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

"Vehicle safety is the wheelhouse of the federal government", said Brian Soublet, head attorney at the DMV.

And manufacturers still have to obey the state traffic laws written for California. Currently, 42 companies hold permits for autonomous testing, from technology companies Apple, Google spinout Waymo, and Uber, to traditional automakers Honda and Ford.

There are 285 autonomous vehicles licensed with the DMV and 996 drivers licensed to test those vehicles, DMV officials said. There's also a template manufacturers must fill in and submit to the department to document moments when a vehicle's autonomous mode had to be suddenly disengaged.

That testing requires a trained safety driver behind the wheel, just in case the onboard computers and sensors fail. The new regulations should be in force sometime next year, although it may take a while after for companies to build out fully autonomous cars that comply with the new regulations.


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