Look, ma, no driver! Cars without humans coming to California soon
By Carolyn Said
February 23, 2018 Updated: February 23, 2018 7:04pm
Long-awaited state regulations for autonomous cars without human drivers may be approved Monday by a legal compliance agency, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, which submitted the rules to the Office of Administrative Law on Jan. 11.
A thumbs-up would open a 30-day public notice period, during which companies can apply for permits to test the cars. California could begin issuing such permits April 2, according to spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez.
“I think we’ll definitely see some companies applying for driverless testing permits right away,” she said. “Manufacturers will want to be the first ones.”
California is a hotbed for robot-car development, with 50 companies testing 387 autonomous vehicles. They all are required to have a backup driver ready to take the wheel on public roads.
“This is a significant step toward an autonomous future in the state, and signals that California is interested in leading by example in the deployment of autonomous vehicles,” said Uber spokeswoman Sarah Abboud in an email. The ride-hailing company operates autonomous taxis with backup drivers in Arizona and Pittsburgh. It tests driverless cars in San Francisco, but they don’t carry passengers. Uber declined to comment about whether it would apply for a no-driver permit.
Rival Lyft, which tests autonomous taxis with backup drivers in Boston and plans a similar pilot in the Bay Area soon, said it is encouraged by the California regulations’ evolution and has “been involved deeply in their development.” It didn’t comment about its no-driver plans.Phantom Auto, a Bay Area self-driving technology company, has the ability to control a car car remotely, using a video game-style steering wheel and pedal array, flanked by large-screen displays of what the car “sees” around it.
Companies must jump through several hoops to get an OK for driverless testing, including certifying that the cars are ready. Robot cars must have a communication link to remote operators who can steer them if they encounter problems. Their owners must show a plan to train those operators.
Car makers could contract out the remote-operator function to third parties, such as Mountain View’s Phantom Auto, which is developing remote-control centers for robot cars and said it has several interested customers.
“If something goes wrong, you still have a human in the loop who can drive the car remotely,” said Elliot Katz, Phantom co-founder and chief strategy officer. Phantom and other remote operations work when a car faces dynamic situations like road construction; they can take over after the car comes to a safe stop.
Remote control cannot avert accidents, however. “We are not the solution if you’re going 75 mph and a couch falls off the pickup truck in front of you,” Katz said. “You wouldn’t be able to ping a remote operator and get them online in a split second.”
Companies must state where they’ll operate the cars, notify local authorities of their intent, specify when the cars may not work — such as in inclement weather — and have a plan for communicating with law enforcement.
Driverless cars also must meet all federal motor-vehicle safety standards. Existing autonomous cars, which have steering wheels, brake pedals and accelerators, already comply. But next-generation robot cars with no manual controls will need waivers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That agency did not immediately respond to queries about this process.
Some companies say their technology has reached a point where people behind the steering wheel — and steering wheels themselves — are no longer necessary.
In November, General Motors’ Cruise division in San Francisco showed a new self-driving car based on the Chevy Bolt but with no steering wheel, brake pedals or accelerator. It said it will mass-produce that model for a robot taxi fleet in 2019. GM said it has asked federal transportation regulators for exceptions to federal safety standards.
“We hope it will represent an important and positive step toward being able to test and ultimately deploy fully self-driving vehicles in California,” GM said about California’s new rules.
Waymo, an offshoot of Google parent Alphabet, for instance, tests its autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Arizona without drivers. In October, it took journalists to its private testing facility at a decommissioned military base in Merced County, where they rode in the driverless minivans, which navigated along dusty roads, the steering wheels turning in mid air as the cars navigated past pedestrians and bicyclists (all Waymo employees).
At first, only test drives with employees will be allowed under California’s new permits. The updated rules include a system for companies to get permits to carry paying customers, but that process is more involved and is likely to take much longer. “We’ve created a path for deployment, but I don’t know if anyone’s ready to do that,” Gonzalez said.
While all autonomous car makers say they want to save lives with robot drivers who don’t text, drink or get distracted, some consumer advocates caution that the country is rushing too quickly toward putting new technology on the roads. Even some in the industry agree with that.
“Every car should be tested with a safety driver and functional brake pedal, accelerator and steering wheel,” said George Hotz, founder of Comma.ai, a San Francisco startup making tools for tech-savvy people to add self-driving features to their own cars. “Now and for the next year, it’s irresponsible for any company to be testing a car without a steering wheel.”
Hotz, whose company originally planned a kit to allow people to make cars fully self-driving, changed course after stern safety warnings from federal regulators.
Autonomous cars are legal in California if they have a backup driver ready to take control and a state OK. Here’s how many permits the DMV has issued:
387 robot cars
1,384 backup drivers
Companies with the most cars