To­tally driver­less cars could be on Cal­i­for­nia roads by June 2018

Lodi News-Sentinel - - Business - By Russ Mitchell

SAN FRAN­CISCO — Driver­less cars — with no­body be­hind the wheel — could be on Cal­i­for­nia roads and high­ways by June 2018.

That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to buy a com­pletely driver­less car next year, or even hail a ride in one. The tech­nol­ogy is still be­ing de­vel­oped. The driver­less cars that may be­gin ap­pear­ing next year will be test ve­hi­cles. They’ll be al­lowed to pick up pas­sen­gers, but only if the pas­sen­gers don’t have to pay.

The time­line was re­vealed Wed­nes­day, when the state Depart­ment of Motor Ve­hi­cles pro­posed a new set of stream­lined reg­u­la­tions along with a 15-day public com­ment pe­riod.

The reg­u­la­tions are ex­pected to be set by the end of the year and ap­proved by the DMV early next year. The depart­ment had not pre­vi­ously set a date, ap­prox­i­mate or oth­er­wise, for the de­ploy­ment of fully au­ton­o­mous cars. The go date could be sooner than June, de­pend­ing on how fast the rules are ap­proved, the DMV said.

Cal­i­for­nia’s ex­ist­ing rules about test­ing driver­less cars, which re­quire a hu­man driver be­hind the wheel even when fully au­ton­o­mous cars are be­ing tested, have been crit­i­cized by in­dus­try lead­ers and some politi­cians as too strict.

States with softer reg­u­la­tions, crit­ics said, were at­tract­ing com­pa­nies for driver­less test­ing and putting Cal­i­for­nia’s rep­u­ta­tion as the na­tion’s tech­nol­ogy in­no­va­tion leader at risk.

Driver­less cars al­ready are op­er­at­ing in Ari­zona, Florida and sev­eral other states that have looser rules than Cal­i­for­nia or no spe­cific driver­less reg­u­la­tions at all.

Con­sumer groups have said that those con­cerns are grossly ex­ag­ger­ated and that safety should come first.

DMV of­fi­cials said they are try­ing to bal­ance safety with tech­nol­ogy devel­op­ment. Many safety ex­perts be­lieve that robot cars will prove far safer than hu­man driv­ers.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment will con­tinue to set safety stan­dards for au­to­mo­biles, while the state’s role is to make sure ve­hi­cles trav­el­ing on state high­ways con­form to fed­eral stan­dards, the DMV said.

“Ve­hi­cle safety is the wheel­house of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment,” said Brian Sou­blet, head at­tor­ney at the DMV. “We con­tinue to re­quire that a man­u­fac­turer ... cer­tify that the ve­hi­cle will op­er­ate safely.”

U.S. Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Elaine Chao told au­tomak­ers and tech com­pa­nies last month that they could vol­un­tar­ily sub­mit driver­less test­ing as­sess­ments to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, but that they didn’t have to. For now, ex­ist­ing fed­eral safety stan­dards for motor ve­hi­cles re­main in place, re­gard­less of whether a hu­man is driv­ing the car.

John Simp­son of Con­sumer Watch­dog said Wed­nes­day that Cal­i­for­nia is ced­ing too much author­ity to the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“The new Cal­i­for­nia DMV pro­posal wrongly re­lies on the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, when there are ab­so­lutely no Fed­eral Motor Ve­hi­cle Safety Stan­dards ap­ply­ing specif­i­cally to au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle tech­nol­ogy,” he said in a state­ment.

“Un­der the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion ap­proach, au­tomak­ers can glance at the (fed­eral) pol­icy and say, ‘That’s nice,’ and then do what­ever they want as they use our roads as pri­vate lab­o­ra­to­ries and threaten high­way safety,” Simp­son said.

Cal­i­for­nia’s new reg­u­la­tions would re­quire that man­u­fac­tur­ers test­ing driver­less cars on public state roads cer­tify that they’re meet­ing fed­eral stan­dards and that any public pa­per­work shared with fed­eral reg­u­la­tors on driver­less test­ing also is passed to the DMV.

The rules would scale back ex­ist­ing reg­u­la­tions that re­quire mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties to ap­prove ve­hi­cle test­ing. Un­der the new rules, testers would sim­ply be re­quired to in­form cities, towns and coun­ties when and where the ve­hi­cles will be tested.

Cur­rently, 285 self-driv­ing cars are be­ing tested on Cal­i­for­nia road­ways by 42 per­mit hold­ers, most of them auto man­u­fac­tur­ers or tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies, ac­cord­ing to the DMV. State-ap­proved hu­man driv­ers are re­quired to sit be­hind the wheel of those cars.

Congress is con­sid­er­ing leg­is­la­tion that would loosen fed­eral re­quire­ments on driver­less-car test­ing.

The Se­nate ver­sion of the pro­posed law would not al­low large driver­less trucks. The new Cal­i­for­nia reg­u­la­tions wouldn’t ei­ther.

TRI­BUNE NEWS SER­VICE

A Google self-driv­ing car moves along the road­way at the com­pany's head­quar­ters in Moun­tain View.

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