California’s Department of Motor Vehicles established new rules announced Monday that will allow tech companies and others working on driverless vehicle systems to begin trialling their cars without a safety driver at the wheel. The new rules go into effect starting April 2.
Until now, the DMV has allowed companies approved for autonomous vehicle testing to run their cars on the roads, with autonomous driving systems engaged, provided that there’s a trained safety driver behind the wheel ready and able to take over manual control. Now, the regulators are updating their rules to allow for a fully driverless test, which is a key step along the route towards actually deploying self-driving vehicles in a commercial capacity.
This doesn’t mean test vehicles will be out there on the roads without any kind of human intervention backup – the DMV will require that those testing autonomous cars without a driver present have a dedicated communications channel that ties the car to a remote operator, who can take over if needed. The cars will also need to be hardened against cyber attacks and be able to provide their owner and operator info to any other parties in the event of an accident.
Any companies wishing to test this way will need to secure a permit to do so from the DMV, just as with driver-present testing, and the new rules only apply to consumer passenger vehicles (not semi trucks, for instance).
Alphabet-owned Waymo and GM’s Cruise will likely welcome this news, since the former is already testing totally driver-free versions of its Chrysler Pacifica test car in Arizona, and Cruise recently showed off its fully driverless autonomous vehicle, a modified version of the Bolt EV with no steering wheel and no pedals for brake and acceleration. GM hopes to field those cars by 2019, and this will help them do that in San Francisco, the site of its current largest test pilot.