California allows driverless car testing, if anyone still cares

by Steve Blum • , ,

Driverless vehicles can be tested on California streets and highways beginning next month, but they won’t be completely on their own. The California Department of Motor Vehicles posted new regulations (and supporting arguments) for autonomous vehicles this week. Among the changes is a way for manufacturers or developers to get permission to run vehicles without anyone physically behind the wheel.

Physically. A remote operator is required, someone who “is not seated in the driver’s seat of the vehicle; engages and monitors the autonomous vehicle; is able to communicate with occupants in the vehicle through a communication link” and is “available to assist law enforcement at all times that the vehicle is in operation”.

The vehicle itself must meet industry standards for Level 4 – mind off – or Level 5 – steering wheel optional – operation. Either type can, in theory, drive themselves without a human onboard to watch over things. The difference is that a Level 5 car can go anywhere, any time, while Level 4 cars can only drive themselves within particular boundaries or circumstances. Otherwise, a human has to be ready to take over instantly.

The big question is whether it matters. Manufacturers and developers have other options, like going to Arizona, where the state government has welcomed Google and Uber with open arms and an open road. Or Nevada or Montana, which have governors who are equally accomodating.

California’s regulators are, well, regulators. Not high tech recruiters. Besides a relatively – compared to neighboring states – complex and bureaucratic licensing process, the DMV requires self-driving car companies to submit detailed reports of operations and, particularly, problems that occur. Those reports are then posted on the web, which is a nice perk for companies that are behind the competitive curve, but less thrilling for the market leaders.

Autonomous vehicle technology was born in California because the companies behind it happened to be here. They don’t have to stay.