California has greenlit developers of driverless vehicles to test their vehicles on California roads without a backup driver at the helm, possible as early as November of this year. The tentative directive came from the Department of Motor Vehicles ("DMV"); which oversees regulation this highly-anticipated technology. Previously, developers of driverless cars were required to have a person stationed inside the vehicle, ready to take control if the need arose. The decision was announced after DMV representatives met with major developers at a public hearing held on Tuesday April 25, 2017, including familiar names such as General Motors, Uber, and Google.
The proposed regulations provide that the testing developer must notify and coordinate with the particular city in which the test is to be performed. Interestingly, the proposed regulation does not require the developer to seek approval from the city. Additionally, the developer must maintain a communication link between the vehicle and a remote operator, who is monitoring the vehicle while it is being controlled by the on-board computer. The developer must also provide law enforcement with the means of deactivating the car and communicating with the developer directly. Further, the driverless vehicle must also carry proof of insurance.
Intriguingly, the proposed regulations will also pave the way for developers to obtain permits to sell driverless vehicles within California. While industry leaders believe that the viability of a commercial market for driverless vehicles is still years away, these regulations, at least from a legal standpoint, would allow developers to seek permits as early as the end of this year.
Currently, approximately 30 companies are permitted to test driverless cars on California city streets and highways. These vehicles necessarily rely on computers, cameras, and light-based radar devices to judge distances between objects while in motion. Such electronic components have not always proven to be one-hundred percent reliable at all times. Accordingly, a backup driver was previously required to be stationed at the wheel, ready to take control should the electronic system malfunction.
Proponents of driverless cars are fueled by the concept that, once perfected, these vehicles will revolutionize the transportation industry and drastically reduce automobile collisions and collision-related injuries; which are largely attributable to human error.
However, skepticism remains as critics oppose this move as premature. They contend that the technology is not yet ready to deal with sudden changes in environmental conditions, such as rain, snow, or even fog. The responsiveness of these vehicles to make snap decisions is also largely unknown. Indeed, a driverless vehicle owned by Uber was involved in an automobile collision in Arizona at the end of March 2017, prompting Uber to temporarily suspend its program to conduct further investigation. One witness indicated that the self-driven Uber vehicle appeared to be trying to "beat the light" which had turned yellow just prior to the collision. For these reasons, some are concerned that California's proposed regulations may jeopardize public safety. Indeed, some California watchdog groups, such as the Consumers of Auto Reliability and Safety, are contemplating taking the DMV to court to block the adoption of the forthcoming regulations.