California Will Let Autonomous Cars Operate Without Safety Drivers

New rules provide for a link that delivers data on vehicle location and status, allowing two-way communication between a remote operator and any passengers.


By Murray Slovick, Contributing Editor

As of April, there will be no more favorable venue for testing an autonomous vehicle than in California. New self-driving vehicle regulations released Feb. 26 by the California Department of Motor Vehicles outlined a permission process for companies like Waymo and GM wishing to deploy driverless vehicles without anyone behind the wheel.

Among its many provisions, the new rules would allow autonomous cars without foot pedals, steering wheels, mirrors, or human drivers behind the wheel to be tested on California roads starting as early as April 2, 2018.

In Congress, the “Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution Act” (H.R. 3388), more commonly known as the “SELF DRIVE” Act, seeks to establish a federal framework for the regulation of self-driving cars. The legislation has passed in the House but is stalled in the Senate.

The Requirements Are…

According to the California DMV, a manufacturer may conduct testing of autonomous vehicles capable of operating without the presence of a driver inside the vehicle on public roads if all of the following requirements are met:

  • The manufacturer certifies that the local jurisdiction where the vehicle will be tested has been notified of the “operational design domain of the vehicles to be tested” and the testing has been coordinated with those local authorities.
  • The manufacturer submits to the department a copy of the written notification provided to each jurisdiction where the vehicles will be tested.
  • A list of all public roads in the jurisdiction where the vehicles will be tested will be provided in advance.
  • The date that testing will begin.
  • The days and times that testing will be conducted on public roads.
  • The number of vehicles to be tested and the types of vehicles to be tested.
  • Contact information, including name, telephone number, address, and email for the contact person for the manufacturer conducting the testing.
  • The manufacturer certifies that, to the extent the manufacturer’s autonomous technology causes the autonomous vehicle to be at-fault in a collision, the manufacturer shall assume liability for damages caused by the autonomous vehicle in such collision, subject to applicable law.
  • The manufacturer certifies that the autonomous vehicles are capable of operating without the presence of a driver inside the vehicle and that the autonomous technology meets the description of a level 4 or level 5 automated driving system under SAE International’s Taxonomy and Definitions for Terms Related to Driving Automation Systems for On-Road Motor Vehicles (standard J3016).
  • There’s a communication link between the vehicle and the remote operator to provide information on the vehicle’s location and status, and allow two-way communication between the remote operator and any passengers if the vehicle experiences any failures that would endanger the safety of the vehicle’s passengers or other road users, or otherwise prevent the vehicle from functioning as intended, while operating without a driver.

The necessary certification shall include:

  1. That the manufacturer will continuously monitor the status of the vehicle and the two-way communication link while the autonomous test vehicle is being operated without a driver.
  2. A description of how the manufacturer will monitor the communication link.
  3. An explanation of how all of the vehicles tested by the manufacturer will be monitored.

As just noted, under the new regulations, car makers must establish a communications link between the vehicle and a remote operator. The vehicle will also have to be able to communicate with law enforcement officials. In the event of a crash, they will a need to be able to transmit vehicle owner and operator information.

Not everyone is in favor of California’s new regulations. John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog Privacy and Technology Project Director and a critic of self-driving cars, said in a statement, “A remote test operator will be allowed to monitor and attempt to control the robot car from afar. It will be just like playing a video game, except lives will be at stake.”

Some 50 companies have already obtained permits to test autonomous vehicles on California roads with a driver present in the driver seat. The state will continue to offer permits for driver-in-vehicle testing.

Waymo is currently testing its cars without safety drivers in Phoenix, Arizona. And GM is building a modified, autonomous Chevrolet Bolt that doesn’t have a steering wheel or pedals. The GM car does have several interior screens that passengers can use to communicate with the vehicle (see figure).

Figure 1

GM’s Cruise AV is a production-ready vehicle that’s built from the get-go to operate safely on its own, with no driver, steering wheel, pedals, or manual controls. (Source: GM)

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