Humans follow California rules, robot cars answer to Washington

8 October 2016 by Steve Blum

Guess which one is a federal case?

If a self driving car still needs a human to be ready to take over operation at any time, then that human needs to be a licensed and fully capable driver. But once autonomous vehicles reach a sufficiently advanced level, then no driver’s licence – no human license – is needed in California. That’s the gist of new draft rules floated by the California department of motor vehicles ahead of a public workshop later this month. The federal highway traffic safety administration also released new rules, in the hopes of ensuring “the establishment of a consistent national framework rather than a patchwork of incompatible laws”.

The lines between state and federal responsibilities regarding autonomous vehicles haven’t been finely drawn yet. The federal document lays out a general scheme: the feds handle vehicle manufacturing and safety standards, and the states set and enforce traffic laws, and conduct safety inspections.

Where it starts to get fuzzy is where driver’s licenses are concerned. The states still regulate which humans get licenses, but, the feds say…

As motor vehicle equipment increasingly performs “driving” tasks, [the federal transportation department’s] exercise of its authority and responsibility to regulate the safety of such equipment will increasingly encompass tasks similar to “licensing” of the non-human “driver” (e.g., hardware and software performing part or all of the driving task).

Higher up the chain of command, though, federal transportation secretary Anthony Foxx put it more bluntly: states will have jurisdiction over humans, but he has the “intention to occupy the field” when it comes to self-driving cars and the software that controls them.

The DMV says that its proposed rules are consistent with that plan. They’ll explain further at the 19 October 2016 workshop in Sacramento.