California wants to let companies test driverless cars without a human behind the wheel

Look, no hands!
Look, no hands!
Image: Reuters/Elijah Nouvelage
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California is preparing to let companies test driverless cars without a human at the steering wheel.

The state Department of Motor Vehicles released proposed rule revisions today (Oct. 11) that would allow testing of self-driving cars without a human in the driver’s seat. The new rules also would let the general public use autonomous vehicles. (The regulations are open to public comment until Oct. 25.)

A key point in the debate over driverless cars is whether they should include a mechanism that lets humans assume control. The changes reflect legislation recently approved by the US Senate Commerce Committee that permits the sale of self-driving cars without steering wheels or other manual controls. A similar bill passed the US House in September.

“We are excited to take the next step in furthering the development of this potentially life-saving technology in California,” California transportation secretary Brian Kelly said in a statement.

California has let companies test driverless vehicles with a driver behind the steering wheel since 2014. Currently, 42 companies hold permits for autonomous testing, from technology companies Apple, Google spinout Waymo, and Uber, to traditional automakers Honda and Ford. There are 285 driverless vehicles and 996 “backup” drivers on California’s public roads.

The revisions would clarify the rules for companies like Uber, which have been picking up riders in their self-driving cars. As of last month, California’s regulations didn’t specifically address passengers. Uber rival Lyft has also partnered with driverless technology startup Drive.ai to give rides in six autonomous vehicles in the state.

California has been fairly strict about enforcing its rules for autonomous vehicles. Last December, the state had a public scuffle with Uber, which decided to put its self-driving cars on the roads without a testing permit. Uber was ordered to take its cars off the road, and eventually decamped for Arizona, a state that has been more openly welcoming to driverless technologies. Waymo has been picking up passengers with its driverless cars in Arizona since May.

On a call this morning, DMV representatives said they were unconcerned by driverless tests occurring in other states, citing a “vast growth in interest” in testing in California.