New state regulations allow robot cars on streets with no one at the wheel or even in the car

Go for a ride in a Google autonomous car

What's it like to ride in a driverless car? Google's Autonomous Car Team explains the features on a test ride with Sacramento Bee transportation writer Tony Bizjak.
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What's it like to ride in a driverless car? Google's Autonomous Car Team explains the features on a test ride with Sacramento Bee transportation writer Tony Bizjak.

California officials took a major step Wednesday toward allowing companies to test autonomous cars without anyone at the wheel or even in the vehicle, releasing a set of regulations on how those tests can be conducted.

The state plans to take public comments over the next two weeks on the new regulations, and officials said the permitting process could be in place early next year.

The new rules would, for the first time, allow technology companies to run cars amid traffic on city streets without anyone in them. The state announcement represents significant movement toward a day when the general public can use these vehicles, which navigate via mounted cameras, radar, lidar and computer guidance.

“We are excited to take the next step in furthering the development of this potentially life-saving technology in California,” state Transportation Secretary Brian Kelly said. Safety officials say they believe the vehicles will reduce crashes by taking the human-error factor out of driving.

In order to test autonomous cars on city streets without any human beings in it, manufacturers will have to show state and federal officials that the vehicles meet a variety of safety standards and are capable of operating in compliance with traffic laws.

Sacramento city officials have invited companies to test their cars in the capital city, saying they want it to be an incubator for the new technology.

Currently, 42 companies, including Tesla, Uber and a subsidiary of Google, hold state permits to test driverless cars. Some of those vehicles already are being testing on city streets. Until now, however, state regulators have required those companies to have someone sitting in the driver’s seat to take control of the car if needed.

“The department looks forward to seeing those companies and additional companies advance the technology under these new regulations,” said Department of Motor Vehicles Director Jean Shiomoto. “Today’s action continues the department’s efforts to complete these regulations by the end of the year.”

The new regulations, developed by the DMV, are based on feedback from technology companies and consumer and safety advocates. The issue remains controversial, with some safety advocates saying the industry is pushing the technology forward too quickly.

Google cars, now operated by a subsidiary called Waymo, have been tested almost daily on city streets in Mountain View and elsewhere for several years. Those cars have reported a handful of collisions, mainly fender benders with other cars. A Tesla driver was killed in Florida when he failed to heed warnings from his semi-autonomous car, which was on pilot mode, and crashed into a truck. An Uber car flipped on its side in Arizona earlier this year when it was hit by another vehicle that failed to yield to the robot car, Tempe police told Bloomberg News.

California’s proposed driverless testing regulations can be viewed on the DMV website at

Under the proposed rules, the state will allow robot cars in test mode on city streets, without anyone in them, under certain conditions:

▪ The testing company must notify and “coordinate” with that particular city. The state had proposed requiring companies to obtain city approval to test cars without drivers, but it backed off after industry lobbying.

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.

▪ The proposed regulations say there must be a “communication link” between the vehicle and a “remote operator” who would monitor the vehicle while it is being controlled by its on-board computer.

▪ Also, the test company must have a way of letting others on the street know who car the owner is, if that vehicle were to be in an accident. It must provide police a way to deactivate the car and communicate with the car company. The car must carry proof of insurance.

In addition, the new rules set up a protocol for car manufacturers to obtain a “deployment permit” to allow the vehicles to be used by the public. The time frame for issuance of those permits is uncertain, but will come after companies can show, through testing, that their vehicles are street-ready for general use.

Industry leaders say it still may be years before fully autonomous vehicles are ready for mass use and sale to the general public.

Several manufacturers say cars likely will increasingly add automated capabilities over time. Paul Hemmersbaugh, an executive with General Motors and former chief council for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said earlier this year there are too many variables to be able to predict when the transition will begin to mass distribution of the vehicles.

“I think a reasonable guesstimate might be that some manufacturer might be ready to commercially deploy some significant number of (autonomous vehicles) in two to five years. It will take a much longer time – if it ever happens – for AVs to substantially displace traditional motor vehicles and predominate in the U.S. motor vehicle fleet.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx took a ride in a Google driverless car. "Holy smokes, it's really interesting technology," he says, and could enhance safety on the road.