California regulators loosen restrictions on fully autonomous vehicles

California lawmakers passed a law to allowing pilot tests of vehicles without drivers. The next day, they also released revised draft regulations to allow for broader testing of fully autonomous cars on public streets.
Written by Kelly McSweeney, Contributor

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In the last two days of September, California transportation authorities made some noteworthy changes to their self-driving vehicle policy.

First, on September 29, a new bill was signed into law that allows fully autonomous to be tested in a pilot project in two specific locations. The next day, California lawmakers also released revised draft regulations that would allow for cars with no driver on a broader scale.

California has been a leader in autonomous vehicle technology, both with technical development and in regards to government. Consumer Watchdog has praised California for regulating self-driving vehicles faster than most states. While other states have been quiet on this issue, California was one of the first states to allow testing. The state has been especially clear on demanding that manufacturers be transparent with the public. Crash reports are posted on the Department of Motor Vehicles website, and companies that test autonomous vehicles must publish an annual report that details any time the technology failed.

While self-driving cars were already being tested in California (and a handful of other states), the previous law required a driver to be in the car ready to take the wheel if needed. Now, drivers are allowed to supervise remotely, and vehicles don't even need a steering wheel, accelerator, or brake pedal.

The new pilot will include driverless shuttles that will be tested at a facility located within a former Naval station, as well as at a business park that includes some public roads. The vehicles aren't permitted to go faster than 35 miles per hour and they must comply with the brand new guidelines from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The day after the self-driving pilot passed into law, California also released revised draft regulations for autonomous vehicles. If they are approved, the regulations will allow manufacturers to test cars with no driver on public roads. These proposed regulations were first released in late 2015, but that version required human drivers to ride along as backup.

The new version would allow for truly driverless vehicles like the ones in the pilot test, which don't have a human on site. Instead, the regulations would require that that a test driver "is actively monitoring the vehicle's operations and capable of taking over immediate physical control" via two-way communication with the vehicle.

The new draft also addresses one of the problems with partially autonomous systems (such as lane-assist technology) that are on the market today. This year there have been several crashes -- some fatal -- involving Tesla vehicles crashed while the Autopilot feature was engaged.

Tesla co-chief executive Elon Musk has said that a software update will prevent similar crashes in the future, but safety advocates are still concerned that it's risky to split responsibility between machines and humans. We spoke with Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project director John Simpson in September (before NTHSA and California's latest announcements). He said:

I think [regulators] fell down on the job when it came to Tesla, and I think that Tesla's been out there leaving the impression that its Autopilot...well, even the name itself smacks of a promise that it can't keep. I think they let those vehicles out there without adequate oversight.

California's revised regulations would at least help ensure that this kind of assisted driving feature isn't falsely advertised. Manufacturers would be prohibited from using the terms "autonomous" or "self-driving" when advertising partially autonomous systems.


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