California Says Autonomous Cars Don't Need Human Drivers

  • New draft regulations reverse earlier rules that irked Google
  • State also backs off requirement that cars have steering wheel

The two-seater prototype of Google's self-driving car.

Photographer: LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group/TNS via Getty Images

California relaxed several rules on self-driving cars as the state tries to maintain its status as a leading test bed for the future of transportation.

The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles released proposed regulations Friday for autonomous vehicles, dropping an earlier requirement that a human driver had to be present while testing on public roads. The DMV also backed down on a previous rule that vehicles needed a steering wheel and pedals for the operator to take back control.

“When we think of driverless vehicles they can either have conventional controls, which are steering wheels, pedals, things like that, or they cannot," said California DMV Chief Counsel Brian Soublet during a conference call with reporters.

If companies test vehicles without conventional controls, they have to show the California DMV that they have approval from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, he added. NHTSA said in early 2016 that self-driving software systems, not just humans, can be considered drivers.

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

California’s change of heart is likely good news for Mountain View, California-based Alphabet Inc., which is developing self-driving software and vehicles through its Waymo division. When the state’s DMV published draft regulations in late 2015 that required human drivers, a steering wheel and pedals, the company was "gravely disappointed." Google had recently built prototypes with no steering wheel or pedals, and it had to retrofit them to continue testing in California.

California’s new proposals follow a Michigan law passed in December, which allowed testing with no human driver. It also created a framework for selling autonomous cars which the California DMV also added to its proposed rules on Friday.

The proposed regulations have a 45-day public comment period that ends April 24. That will be followed by a public hearing. During Friday’s conference call, the California DMV said the rules should be completed by the end of the year.

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