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California may approve human-free driverless cars

Fully autonomous vehicles could take to city streets by April

Waymo CEO John Krafcik shows off Google’s self-driving Chryslers in 2017, onstage in Detroit.
Waymo CEO John Krafcik shows off Google’s self-driving Chryslers in 2017.
Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The California Department of Motor Vehicles may approve a change of rules today that would allow for driverless cars without human operators to hit state streets for the first time.

Under current DMV rules “a manufacturer shall not permit any of its autonomous test vehicles to be operated on public roads in California [...] when an autonomous vehicle test driver is not seated in the vehicle’s driver seat and monitoring its operations and able to take over.”

In January, the DMV made a move to open up roads to truly autonomous vehicle testing for the first time, provided that:

There is a communication link between the vehicle and the remote operator to provide information on the vehicle’s location and status and allow two-way communication between the remote operator and any passengers if the vehicle experiences any failures.

[...] That the manufacturer will continuously monitor the status of the vehicle and the two-way communication link while the autonomous test vehicle is being operated without a driver.

[...] The manufacturer certifies that the autonomous vehicles are capable of operating without the presence of a driver inside the vehicle and that the autonomous technology meets the description of a level four or level five automated driving system.

A “level-four automated driver system” means that the car “can operate without human input or oversight, but only under select conditions defined by factors such as road type or geographic area.” Under this designation, the vehicle would still require a human to take over at least some of the time, either directly or remotely.

A level five system is “full automation” without the necessity for human help. According to Car and Driver, “The driverless car can operate on any road and in any conditions a human driver could negotiate.”

Uber Self-Driving Car Program Resumes After Crash
A self-driving Uber car in San Francisco in March of 2017. No fares please.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

There are no level-five cars on the roads in California as of today; companies like Santa Clara-based NVIDIA claim that the technology exists and will soon be in circulation.

If the DMV’s Office of Administrative Law approves the suggested changes, “the department will post a public notice of that approval on its website and will begin approving applications 30 days after that notice.”

Autonomous cars without safety drivers have already seen public testing in Arizona, with companies like Google’s Waymo reporting the first successful driver-free drives on public streets in October (although Waymo employees came along as backseat passengers for those trips). Driverless trips in California have hitherto happened only in private, closed testing areas.