Self-driving cars with no human behind the wheel — or, for that matter, any steering wheel at all — may soon appear on California’s public roads, under regulations state officials proposed Friday.
The rules represent a delicate balance, trying to ensure the safety of a new technology many people don’t trust while avoiding tough restrictions that could send car companies fleeing to other states.
Until now, California has required all 27 companies testing autonomous cars in the state to have someone in the driver’s seat, ready to take over, when testing on public roads. And those vehicles needed to have steering wheels and brake pedals, even if some self-driving car engineers didn’t consider them necessary.
Both of those requirements would disappear under the new regulations proposed by the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
Instead, automakers would need to certify to the state that their own testing — either on closed tracks or through computer modeling — shows the cars are ready to operate on public roads with no one behind the wheel. Tests with no driver would require an operator monitoring the car, ready to steer via remote control if necessary.
And if automakers want to deploy cars without such standard controls as a steering wheel and pedals, they would first need the approval of federal highway safety officials.
“Combining all those things together, we think, gives you the assurance of the safety of the vehicle,” said Brian Soublet, the DMV’s chief counsel and deputy director.
The regulations, which could take effect by year’s end, are designed to carry the Golden State into a future in which driverless cars are no longer experimental, but commercially available.
That future may not be far off. Ford Motor Co., for example, has committed to deploying self-driving taxis by 2021. Automakers see the technology as a way to prevent many if not most of the accidents that kill more than 30,000 people in the United States each year.
The proposed rules are intended to keep California at the forefront of this fast-developing field.
The Bay Area in particular has turned into a hub of self-driving research, largely due to the work of such Silicon Valley companies as Google and Tesla. One hundred eighty autonomous cars are now licensed for testing in the state. But other states and cities — including Arizona, Michigan and Pittsburgh — have welcomed self-driving tests.
“We’re opening a path for driverless testing, so that will encourage these companies to continue their work in California,” Soublet said.
Nidhi Kalra, senior information scientist at the Rand Corp. think tank, said California’s proposed rules are still more restrictive than those in other states. For example, most states don’t require companies testing self-driving cars to report the number of times they have to disengage the system during tests, while California does.
“I’d call these (regulations) reasonably competitive — not the most permissive or business friendly,” Kalra said. Overall, she thinks the rules should allow the state to continue as a hotbed for autonomous vehicle development.
“These companies didn’t come to Silicon Valley because it has terrific regulations for autonomous vehicles,” Kalra said. “They came because of culture, environment, resources, talent. I don’t think they’ll leave as long as the regulations don’t stifle them or create onerous hurdles.”
The DMV has been developing rules for self-driving cars since 2012, and at times, the auto industry has pushed back.
Last year, for example, the state proposed requiring that companies receive permission from a city, through a resolution or ordinance, before testing autonomous cars in that locality. That idea has since been dropped.
Some automakers on Friday cautiously welcomed the proposed rules as an improvement over previous drafts.
“Ultimately, these technologies have the potential to save lives, and thoughtful, coordinated federal and state guidelines that encourage innovation and enable testing will reduce the time it will take to bring automated vehicles to market and provide our customers increased confidence in their performance,” Honda Motor Co. said in a statement.
Not all agreed. The Association of Global Automakers, which represents many foreign car companies (including Honda), called some of the new requirements “unnecessary and prescriptive.”
Some consumer advocates, meanwhile, complained that the state was being too lenient with automakers.
“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, with the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog. “The new rules are too industry friendly and don’t adequately protect consumers.”
The proposed regulations cede setting safety and performance standards to the federal National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. California’s role would be to assure that vehicles meet the federal standards and comply with traffic regulations. The state would also retain its authority to issue permits for vehicles or revoke those permits if companies violate the regulations.
“The vehicles have to be programmed and designed to obey California vehicle code and any local traffic ordinances,” Soublet said. Manufacturers must offer annual updates to keep pace with changing laws.
“If you’re obeying the law, your car won’t run a stop light, turn left when it’s not supposed to, or, heaven forbid, run over a pedestrian in a crosswalk,” he said.
Manufacturers also must have a “law enforcement interaction plan.”
“We discussed with the Highway Patrol what they’d want to see in responding to (autonomous) vehicles,” Soublet said. “Simple things, like where in the vehicle will we find out who owns it and whether it’s insured? How do we know if autonomy is engaged; how do we get it off the road and tow it if we need to?”
Some elements of the proposed rules seem tailored to address issues raised by specific companies.
For example, the regulations would forbid companies from charging passengers for a ride in a self-driving car that is operating in a test. Uber staged a very public fight with the DMV last year over self-driving car regulations as it briefly picked up passengers in San Francisco in robot cars with human drivers. After the DMV ordered the company to stop, it sent the cars to Arizona, where they are picking up passengers in Tempe. (Uber received permission this week to operate two self-driving cars in California.)
The proposal also dropped the DMV’s objection to car companies using the terms “self-driving,” “automated” or “auto-pilot” to advertise their cars unless those cars are truly autonomous. That objection, raised last fall, seemed aimed at Tesla, whose Autopilot feature can control the company’s electric cars on the freeway but still needs active human supervision.
Tesla on Friday thanked regulators for the change.
“Our customers have made clear that they understand Autopilot’s intended use,” the company said, in an emailed statement.
New rules for robot cars
The California Department of Motor Vehicles has proposed new regulations for the testing and sale of self-driving cars. The rules are intended to ensure public safety — and keep the industry from leaving California.
Self-driving cars being tested on public roads would no longer require a human behind the wheel, ready to take over if needed.
Those cars would, however, need to be monitored by someone able to take over via remote control.
Automakers could deploy cars with no steering wheels or brake pedals, but only if the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration first agrees that the cars are safe.
By the numbers
27 Number of companies testing self-driving cars in California
180 Number of licensed self-driving cars in California
658 Number of drivers permitted to test-drive autonomous cars in California
Leaders: Google/Waymo (77 cars, 239 drivers); GM/Cruise (27 cars, 55 drivers); Tesla (24 cars, 64 drivers)