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California approves truly driver-free automated cars

Technology previously only tested on public streets in Arizona will come home to Silicon Valley

A self-driving Uber car pulling out of the garage. Photo by Dllu/Wikicommons

As anticipated, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) announced Monday that it will allow tech companies and car manufacturers to begin testing automated vehicles on California roads without human safety drivers.

According to the announcement on the DMV site, “On February 26, 2018, the [DMV] approved the driverless testing and deployment regulations. The department will post a public notice of that approval on its website and can begin approving applications 30 days after the notice.”

That means driver-free cars may appear on Bay Area roadways as early as April. While weighing the decision, the DMV processed public comments from bodies as varied as the city governments of major metros like San Francisco and LA to private groups like the Sacramento-based Society For the Blind and of course self-driving carmakers themselves.

According to Monday’s summary, many have opinion on what’s to be done with driverless cars, among them:

  • Several bodies wanted the state to turn power over where testing happens to individual cities, but the DMV demurred, saying, “Pursuant to California law, the approval of an application to operate autonomous vehicles on public roads rests with the Department of Motor Vehicles.”
  • Some self-driving car boosters (and companies themselves) complained that having to make disengagement reports (recording the times a human driver had to take over for a robot car in the field) was unfair and misleading. The DMV replied, “[R]eports provide the department a greater understanding of the testing activities.”
  • Critical comments suggested that the state should have to publish technical data and video when a crash with a self-driving car happens, but that would risk “disclosing trade secret and confidential business information and is thus not required.”
  • Also, some people demanded precautions that were already part of the law, such as the requirement to publish accident reports and to keep test vehicles off of airport roadways.

In the end, the DMV said that the preponderance of public comment favored expanding testing. As of January, 50 different bodies have permits to test driverless cars on California roads.