No Steering Wheel, No Pedals, No Driver? No Problem—Robo-Cars Finally Get the Green Light in California

By: Bridget Clerkin April 3, 2017
Coming soon: Completely driverless cars.
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California is famous for its laid-back attitude, but the state seems more relaxed than ever lately when it comes to autonomous autos.

In a long-awaited proposal released earlier this month, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) introduced the regulatory framework for testing truly driverless cars—that is, cars that can operate themselves; no humans—or air quotes—necessary.

While yet to be formalized, the plan could conceivably go into effect this November, offering up the state’s roads for such experiments by the year’s end and allowing for limited commercial availability of the robo-cars as early as 2018.

Still, the welcome approach to the subject marks an abrupt change of heart from the DMV, which seemed in the past to relish its role as rule enforcer—publicly tangling with titans of the autonomous industry and working to temper the rapid implementation of the technology—and hands a decisive victory to driverless car makers, even as some watchdog groups expressed concern over the loosening of safety standards.

A Long Road to Hoe

While the suggested rules may look like an open road for manufacturers racing to lead the driver-free pack, the process of creating them seemed less a joyride for the DMV than a tightrope walk.

The agency’s first attempt at regulating self-driving vehicles—a set of guidelines issued in December 2015, which were widely discussed but never officially adopted—was filled with checks on both the technology’s explosive growth rate and the industry’s power. That didn’t sit well with some bigwig players, like Google, which openly complained about the policies, specifically those restricting the types of cars that could be used for testing.

And while some of the 27 companies running autonomous auto experiments in the state spoke of their disappointment, others, including heavy hitters like Uber, began acting on it, seeking out greener—and more laissez-faire—pastures across the country to test their fleets.

But even as the California DMV went back to the drawing board, the diligence of its first draft was quickly undermined by a spate of federal rules released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which essentially overrode any barriers the state had placed on testable prototypes.

If the proposal issued this month—the result of a years-long rumination on the subject—is any indication, the department learned a lesson in the response to its opening regulatory bid. A major change written into the rules absolves the state from the responsibility of enforcing safety standards on the new driverless cars, instead yielding that role solely and directly to the NHTSA, an agency with a history of overtly cheering on the industry’s expansion, even in the face of the first fatal accident involving a self-driving car.

For better or worse, the new regulations seem designed to put California back in the fast lane for developing self-driving technology—and maintaining its manufacturers in house.

A major change written into the rules absolves the state from the responsibility of enforcing safety standards on the new driverless cars.

A Headless Horseman for the New Age

How different is this new draft from the DMV’s first?

The proposal literally puts strike lines through a number of paragraphs that once defined concepts like “autonomous vehicle[s]” and “autonomous mode”—the passages that drew perhaps the most ire from the autonomous car industry—and replaces them with new language that, in many cases, reads nearly the opposite way.

The lack of need for “active physical control by a natural person sitting in the vehicle’s driver seat” that was once specifically noted as an essential feature of “autonomous mode” has gone missing—along with the call for a “natural person actively monitoring the driving environment” at all, as explained in the new interpretation of an “autonomous test vehicle.” Instead, in both cases, any “hardware and software” deemed capable of operating the car could be used “with or without” human oversight.

That alteration laid the groundwork for another big change in the proposal: Companies can now test cars without pedals or steering wheels in California.

The issue had previously been a huge point of contention between the DMV and Google—at the time, the unquestioned leader of the autonomous industry—with the regulatory agency insisting upon the need for such controls and the Internet giant arguing that test subjects in such vehicles had become too distracted to realize when they’d need to take the wheel back anyway.

Other tweaks in the latest proposal reflect a clear shuffling of priorities to bring on more testing at a faster clip. Self-driving manufacturers are now asked to inform a municipality that their roads will play testing ground to the technology, whereas previous regulations required the companies to obtain permission from local governing bodies—and abide by their laws—in order to use their streets as a working laboratory.

And then, of course, there’s the section on driverless cars, an entirely new creation in the 2.0 draft. Among other stipulations, the passage lays out potential licensing requirements for the new cars, discusses registration and other financial responsibilities involved in the process, and lays out a list of rules carmakers must follow not just to test but to buy, sell, or lease their driver-free cars in the future.

That alteration laid the groundwork for another big change in the proposal: Companies can now test cars without pedals or steering wheels in the California.

Specifically, the state granted manufacturers the right to declare when a model is road-ready—provided the FHTSA agrees—a process mirroring the way standard cars are currently brought to market.

Perhaps most remarkable of all is how unremarkably the new technology is treated in the draft—a sign, perhaps, of our rapidly-evolving view on the future of driving.

If You Can’t Beat Them…

None of these rules are final—yet.

Like the initial draft released by the Department of Motor Vehicles in 2015, the regulations are subject to a 45-day public comment period—which is slated to close on April 25. It’s the time period where concerned citizens, consumers, and business leaders alike can air their thoughts on the matter to the state agency.

While the changes elicited an “It’s about time” reaction from many, they haven’t been without some objectors. Most notably, Consumer Watchdog, the nonprofit advocacy group, has lamented the state’s concession on the steering wheel and pedals issue, saying the totally autonomous technology was not yet developed enough for such public testing.

But even those opposed to the issue must acknowledge the rising tide of fatal auto accidents, and the growing need to fight it—a prospect for which driverless cars have been sold as the savior by manufacturers and the U.S. government alike.

Still, it seems, no matter what ultimately happens, the technology will find a way.

Since becoming conscious of our opposable thumbs, human beings have been fixated on how we can use them to physically change our world. With most of the natural elements mastered centuries ago, we’ve turned our attention instead to the constructs of our already man-made society, pushing the needle of progress ever-forward, with hardly the time to take a breath.

In that way, it seems that “autopilot” is no longer a function of our cars but of ourselves. And whether or not the vehicles of our future include steering wheels, we can only hope they retain their rearview mirrors—giving us the chance, however fleeting, to glimpse where we have been, and reflect on what we’ve learned from that path.

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