A moment that once belonged only in sci-fi novels is now a month away in California.
Starting in early April, auto manufacturers and technology companies will be free to put cars onto California city streets for testing with no one at the wheel - and in fact no one even in the car.
The Department of Motor Vehicles received legal approval Monday to publish the ground rules - and will begin issuing permits in a month.
“This is a major step forward for autonomous technology in California,” DMV Director Jean Shiomoto said in a press statement. “Safety is our top concern and we are ready to begin working with manufacturers that are prepared to test fully driverless vehicles in California.”
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Car and tech companies are saying little so far about when they will seek permits and where they will do their testing. But 50 companies have registered with the state to do some sort of testing, and state officials say California represents a prime national market for companies eager to take the technology to the next level.
Uber, a company that has clashed several times with California regulators, lauded the DMV for taking a "significant step," but indicated it is looking for the state to push its comfort zone even further by allowing for testing of autonomous trucks as well.
"This is a significant step towards an autonomous future in the state, and signals that California is interested in leading by example in the deployment of autonomous vehicles," said Sarah Abboud, an Uber spokesperson, in an email. "With this effort complete, we look forward to working with California as it develops regulations applicable to autonomous trucks. "
Uber currently tests autonomous cars in Arizona, a state that does not regulate the new industry. Uber officials declined to say when and where they will begin California testing.
Transportation and technology experts say they believe fully autonomous vehicles are an eventual certainty, it remains unclear how those vehicles may be used. Already, some transit agencies are laying plans for autonomous shuttle buses, and some companies are exploring buying autonomous cars for fleet use.
At some point, autonomous vehicles likely will be mass produced for consumer use. Advocates for the disabled are pushing for faster implementation of the technology to increase mobility options for non-drivers.
Some companies, such as Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Inc. (formerly the Google autonomous vehicle project), and General Motors already have been testing autonomous cars on California city streets for several years. Waymo's tests have mainly been in Mountain View. General Motors is testing cars in San Francisco.
But any vehicle currently being tested on California streets has until now been required to have someone sitting in the driver's seat to take control, typically an engineer working for the test company.
The new regulations will allow companies to test cars with no one in them, with someone monitoring each car from a remote location.
To obtain the new permits, companies will have to show state and federal officials that the vehicles meet safety standards and are capable of complying with traffic laws.
The testing company also must notify and "coordinate" with any city in which it plans to run its cars. Sacramento city officials have solicited technology companies to test their cars here on streets around the state Capitol.
The permit allows testing on any public road, including freeways, but does not require companies to inform Caltrans or the CHP when it uses highways. Sacramento State is pushing for an autonomous shuttle between campus and a nearby light-rail station.
The state also will require a communication link between the vehicle and a "remote operator" who would monitor a vehicle being controlled by an on-board computer.
Also, the test company must have a way of letting others on the street know who the car owner is, in case that vehicle were to be in a crash. It must provide police a way to deactivate the car and communicate with the car company. The car must carry proof of insurance.
Vehicles without steering wheels or pedals would be legal for street tests, but only if the manufacturer gets an exemption approved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The state also will allow car and tech companies, starting next month, to obtain a second permit that will allow autonomous cars to be used commercially on city streets in California, but only after tests show that they can operate safely. Companies like Uber are expected to seek those "deployment permits."
The state has not specified how long testing must be done before autonomous vehicles can be used for commercial purposes. That means an autonomous car company can apply with the DMV for a permit to sell its cars or use them for commercial purposes as soon as the company shows the vehicles meet safety and performance standards. Notably, the company has to show it has a system to shut the car down if it is hit by a cyber attack.
Driverless cars have long been billed as a way to reduce crashes and injuries. More than 90 percent of crashes are caused by human error, federal data show. But polls show that many American drivers remain fearful of the crash potential of autonomous cars.
A survey published last month by the American Automobile Association found that 63 percent of U.S. drivers "report feeling afraid to ride in a fully self-driving vehicle." That is a significant decrease, however, from 78 percent the year before, AAA reported.
“Americans are starting to feel more comfortable with the idea of self-driving vehicles,” said Suna Taymaz, an AAA autonomous vehicle strategy executive.
Trust in the technology differed by age group. Among baby boomers, 68 percent expressed fear of robot cars, while only 49 percent of the younger millennial generation is fearful.
Some safety advocates argue the state is allowing the tech industry to push forward too quickly. Cars tested here and elsewhere have been in crashes, though those mainly have been fender-benders.
Consumer Watchdog, a safety advocacy group, warned in a press release Monday that the regulations allowing remote operators to monitor cars will turn autonomous tests "into a deadly video game that threatens highway safety."
While most transportation officials say they expect autonomous cars, buses, trucks and other vehicles to become the norm at some point, the timing remains unknown. Several auto manufacturers say they will increasingly add automated capabilities over time to mass-produced cars rather than be fully autonomous immediately.
Automatic, but not fully autonomous technology, already is gaining ground in many newer model mass-produced cars. Some cars are equipped with technology that can automatically parallel park a car or automatically hit the brakes in an emergency situation. Some vehicles have technology that can keep a car in its lane on the freeway without driver assistance and warn a driver is another vehicle is in the driver's blind spot.