Stop / Start. California DMV finally gives green light for driverless car trials

Image: Steve Jurvetson - Flickr
Alex Stockwell

Sacramento in a move that is likely to bring cheer to much of Silicon Valley

In an attempt to keep itself at the forefront of the future of transportation, California has proposed changes to the rules and restrictions regarding the manufacture of driverless cars.

In a move that’s likely to satisfy much of Silicon Valley, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) recently updated their suggested regulations, helping companies to design, test and deploy technology with fewer restrictions than those criticized by the industry back in October.

Some might argue that this U-turn has been made in an effort to keep companies from fleeing the state, and with huge players like Google, Tesla, Intel and Apple lining up to take their piece of the pie, such a claim isn’t completely unrealistic.

But, what exactly do these new regulations mean for the future of driverless cars? And why were those initial rulings deemed so disappointing?

Where we’re going, we don’t need drivers

In what is set to become a trillion-dollar industry, California very much wants to be a big part of the future of self-driving vehicles. That’s why initial draft rules back in October were met with disappointment as the industry deemed them to be too restrictive.

For example, the old proposal stated that cars needed to be able to be controlled by a human at a moment’s notice, but the new regulations allow developers to do away with archaic features such as pedals and steering wheels, and instead, the new rules are set “to include the testing of vehicles that do not require the presence of a driver inside the vehicle”.

This seems an obvious direction for the industry to take as Eric Noble, the president of The CarLab, a consulting firm for the automotive industry, points out to Bloomberg:

“If California was going to keep that level of development activity in the state, what they did was necessary and timely. They kind of had to do it because at some point manufacturers can’t move autonomous vehicles forward without getting controls out of cars.”

Some out there are expressing concern about the fact that companies could essentially “self-certify” their vehicles, and as Ryan Calo of the Washington School of Law points out to Wired, this lack of mandated testing is putting an awful lot of trust in the hands of manufacturers.

New rules for a new age

The amended proposal isn’t just about doing away with drivers, however. It also includes outlines for enforcing safety standards, as well as things like what constitutes “certification”, and details on how autonomous cars should be advertised.

As to what the other states decide regarding their own rules for driverless cars, California may act as a litmus test as to how federal regulators view the matter. The news of the updated regulations coincides neatly with the federal government’s own $4 billion plans for getting more self-driving cars on the road in the coming decades. And, if Washington gives the go ahead, we may see these cars taking to the roads as early as next year.

Public hearings begin in Sacramento in late April when we’ll know more then if the proposal can go ahead.

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