OK, sure, there are self-driving cars on California roads today. General Motors’ Cruise has Chevrolet Bolts zipping around San Francisco; Google self-driving spinoff Waymo has got Chrysler Pacifica motoring about Mountain View; secretive startup Zoox has black Toyota Highlanders mixing it up along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. But all these vehicles, however capable, have a decidedly un-futuristic feature: There’s a human in the driver’s seat, ready to grab control in case the robot goes rogue.
It’s not just common sense, it’s the law. California’s Department of Motor Vehicles requires that safety driver to be there. But if autonomous technology is ever going to deliver on its promises, the human has got to go. Now the tech companies and automakers salivating over that future are an important step closer to cashing in.
On Wednesday, the state DMV released a new proposal for updates to its autonomous vehicle policy that would allow companies to deploy vehicles on public roads without drivers. As early as 2018, a Californian might glance into the lane next to them and see a car without a driver, rearview mirrors, gas and brake pedals, or a steering wheel. That’s right: truly driverless vehicles will soon be welcome in the Golden State.
Congress may finally be hacking away at national legislation that would firmly delineate who is responsible for regulating what about autonomous cars, but California has a big role to play here. “California is special,” says Bryant Walker Smith, a legal scholar with the University of South Carolina School of Law who studies self-driving vehicles. “It’s really big, it’s where a lot of this action is happening, it has the track record to be thinking through these issues, and it’s pretty committed to them.” The state has been regulating self-driving tech since 2012, and to date, has barred anyone from running a human-free car on public roads.
This updated proposal, open for public comment until October 25 and set to be finalized before the end of the year, seems to confirm a change: This driverless vehicle thing is really happening. “It’s yet another step,” Smith says. “And these days, there are so many steps, so fast, that I’d say we’re running.”
Go West, Young Robot
To be sure, California regulation isn’t what’s stopping self-driving developers from dumping the human right now. They could do that in Arizona, which has no rules regulating the tech—just an executive order from Governor Doug Ducey ordering state agencies to “undertake any necessary steps to support the testing and operation of self-driving cars.” Companies could even roll out cars without steering wheels or pedals, if the National Highway Safety Administration grants them an exemption from the federal vehicle standards that govern how cars are built.
No one’s doing that because the tech isn’t ready just yet. Developers need to convince themselves (not to mention the public) that their systems work, that they’re reliable under all sorts of conditions (sun, wind, rain), and that they’re way safer than human drivers. None of them want to risk maiming or killing someone by pushing their tech too hard. But someday soon, they’ll decide they’re ready. And when they do, likely in the next year or two, expect these things to hit the road—somewhere.
Still, California’s moves are important. They give developers a solid understanding of the steps they need to take to get to actual driverless vehicles ready for action in a major market—and for that human-free glamour shot on the Golden Gate Bridge. The revised regulations hike the price for a testing permit from $150 a year to $3,600 every two years; don’t allow companies to charge fees for rides in test vehicles; and require them to give local authorities written notifications of driverless tests happening in their jurisdictions, with extra details on what roads are involved and when the vehicles will be there.
Don’t expect such rigor from the other 49. Since California first got its hands dirty with self-driving car legislation back in 2012, other states have clamored to make their highways more attractive for the cash-rich tech and automotive industries. And it’s unlikely they’ll create regulatory regimes as detailed or demanding as the Golden State’s.
And, being the federal government, the federal government could step in and ruin everyone’s regulatory party. All these rules could be rendered moot once the federal government hammers out nationwide self-driving rules. The Senate’s bill, which passed out of committee last week, could totally preempt California’s and other states’ authorities to determine how autonomous vehicle companies handle their passengers’ data, and protocols after a crash. (The proposed regulations would require the companies to teach law enforcement how to extract data in the event of a crash and how to move a vehicle off the road.) As with all things self-driving: Wait and see.