Published: Wed, October 11, 2017
Business | By Max Garcia

California plans to allow autonomous cars without backup drivers

That's defined as the low-risk operating condition a driverless vehicle will automatically return to should the car's autonomous systems fail or if a human operator doesn't take over.

The DMV said the draft rules, allowing fully computer-controlled driver-free vehicles onto Cali's public roads for the first time, are part of an effort by the state to keep up with the technological advances made by manufacturers and developers.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has updated its rules governing self-driving vehicle testing, removing the requirement that a human backup driver be present in the auto and ready to take over. That's been removed in this updated version, with the DMV arguing that it was needlessly restrictive to continue demanding a person in each test vehicle. "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".

Officials hope to submit final regulations by the end of this year and allow the cars to pick up non-paying passengers without a backup driver by June. California proposed draft regulations in December 2015 that required a driver to remain behind the wheel, resulting in pushback from Google's self-driving unit and others.

That distinction is held by Florida, which remains "the only state to expressly allow a truly driverless vehicle", according to Law360.

The DMV is trying to balance safety and technology development.

"The new California DMV proposal wrongly relies on the federal government, when there are absolutely no Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards applying specifically to autonomous vehicle technology", John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project director, said in a press release.

"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. It's this that the newly proposed driverless testing and deployment regulations addresses. Under the new rules, testers would simply be required to inform cities, towns and counties when and where the vehicles will be tested. Currently, 42 companies hold permits for autonomous testing, from technology companies Apple, Google spinout Waymo, and Uber, to traditional automakers Honda and Ford. State-approved human drivers are required to sit behind the wheel of those cars.

The Senate version of the proposed law would not allow large driverless trucks. 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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