It was a rulemaking slog, one that some in the industry criticized as an example of typical Golden State overreach.
But on Monday, after years of drafts, public comment sessions and revisions, California regulations allowing the testing and public use of fully driverless cars took effect. Previous rules required human backup drivers behind the wheel.
One firm has applied for one of the new permits, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. It will be named later in the approval process, the DMV said.
Back in 2012, when California officials started drafting plans to regulate cars that could drive themselves, the idea was still fresh and new.
Gov. Jerry Brown Jr. (D) held the signing ceremony for the autonomous vehicles legislation at Google’s headquarters and bragged that “California’s technological leadership is turning today’s science fiction into tomorrow’s reality.”
That was before dozens of tech companies and carmakers leaped into the realm of autonomous vehicles, before Uber surprised many in the industry by adding passengers to its test vehicles in Pittsburgh in 2016, and before Waymo, formerly Google’s self-driving car project, started letting ordinary residents be ferried around Arizona without a backup driver.
And it was before a driverless Uber SUV struck and killed a woman walking a bike across a Tempe, Ariz., thoroughfare last month.
California officials said the fatality in Arizona, along with the death last month of a Tesla owner whose vehicle was operating in partially-automated “Autopilot” mode, did not shift their overall approach as the long-awaited regulations finally took effect.
The California DMV “takes the safe operation of our autonomous permit holders very seriously,” the agency said in a statement Monday, noting that the regulations have been under development for years. “The Department will not approve any permits until it is clear that the applicant has met all of the safe operation requirements set forth in law and in the regulations.”
The rules require developers of the technology to certify that their vehicles have “been tested under controlled conditions that simulate, as closely as practicable” the types of conditions and circumstances they are designed for, according to the state DMV. That might include operating at night in the rain in a particularly busy geography.
Companies are also required to certify their cars are “designed to detect and respond to roadway situations in compliance with California Vehicle Code provisions and local regulation applicable to the operation of motor vehicles.”
And automakers and tech firms must notify local communities of their testing plans; must have a continuously monitored “two-way communication link”; and must tell the state when they have a fender bender or more serious crash, or their cars’ autonomous technology “disengages” and needs, for example, to pull over because of a malfunction.
California’s regulations are a departure from the federal government’s hands-off approach to driverless cars. Voluntary federal guidelines ask companies to send safety assessment letters to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The documents are meant to demonstrate how a company knows its autonomous cars are safe for the roads. However, companies are not required to submit the paperwork, though Congress is considering that step.
“The public is going to know more about automated driving because of California and not because of the federal government,” said Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina who has studied how California and other states have approached driverless regulation. “The federal government has asked the companies to share information. California compels them to share information as a regular part of their testing and operations.”
Smith said among states, California has the heft to institute a more comprehensive regulatory structure.
“Developers and deployers of automated vehicles want to be in California. They want to be in California for the market. They want to be in California for the talent. And they want to be in California for the money, for the investors,” Smith said. “That means that California can impose rules that developers might, in some ways, grumble about, but they will comply with, because they don’t want to leave California.”
Already, about 50 companies have permits under California’s 2014 autonomous testing rules requiring a backup driver.
The state has, according to Smith, worked to make sure its rules are not vulnerable to being “preempted” by federal action or legislation.
The federal government traditionally has had the authority to regulate automobiles, while states have kept tabs on drivers. As the lines between those have blurred, legal authorities, too, have come into question. Carmakers and tech companies have pushed for legislation that would preempt states from creating what they warn could be a patchwork of rules governing autonomous technologies.
In a speech last month, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said the Transportation Department’s “approach will be flexible and tech neutral, not top down, command and control. We are not in the business of picking winners or losers. The market will determine the most effective solutions.”