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California to Allow Autonomous Car Testing with No One Behind the Wheel

Author: Eric Walz   

SACRAMENTO — The California DMV has put in place new rules for self-driving vehicles, allowing testing with no one behind the wheel—or in the car at all. Under the new rules, companies are now permitted to test autonomous vehicles using a "remote" human backup capable of taking over the vehicle in case the onboard systems encounter a problem on the road.

The new rule goes into effect on April 2.

The remote backup system also referred to as ‘teleoperations', where a human can monitor what the vehicle sees in real-time from its cameras, taking control of the vehicle if necessary. A typical teleoperations station resembles a video game, complete with monitors displaying the view from the car's windshield, a steering wheel, accelerator and brake pedals.

California has been at the forefront of self-driving cars since Google began testing self-driving cars on the state's roads in 2009. Previously, the California DMV required that a human operator be behind the wheel at all times, ready to take over if something goes wrong. The state also required companies to have a autonomous driving testing permit to test self-driving vehicles on public roads. While the permit is still necessary, the person behind the wheel is not.

"This is a major step forward for autonomous technology in California," said Jean Shiomoto, director of California's DMV. "Safety is our top concern and we are ready to begin working with manufacturers that are prepared to test fully driverless vehicles in California."

The new DMV rule also stipulates that autonomous cars without a driver present have a dedicated communications channel that links the car to the remote operator. The cars will also need to be protected against cyber attacks and be able to provide their owner and operator info to any other parties in the event of an accident. It is not clear vehicle how cyber-security will be evaluated yet.

Around 50 companies have been granted the autonomous vehicle testing permit in California, including Waymo, Uber, Lyft, Cruise, and Ford.

Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Google's parent company, Alphabet, started testing autonomous vehicles without safety drivers in the Phoenix metro area in October. Since that time, it has picked up passengers in driverless vehicles and it plans to launch a ride-hailing service without human drivers later this year.

"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," Sarah Abboud, an Uber spokeswoman, said in a statement.

The new rule already has some detractors.

John M. Simpson, a director for Consumer Watchdog, a frequent critic of Alphabet's self-driving car project, said the new rules will threaten highway safety as remote operators try "to control the robot car from afar." He said the oversight will turn driving these vehicles into a video game "except lives will be at stake."

Disengagement Reporting

Currently, California requires companies to report the number of "disengagements," or instances when human drivers are forced to take over for the autonomous vehicle for safety reasons. Waymo had the fewest number of disengagements, which is recorded as disenagements per mile. The disengagement report give some insight to just how good the self-driving technology is at this point.

Waymo for example, had the fewest disengagements out of all of the companies reporting. The company reported just one disengagement in 30,516 miles traveled on California roads in November of 2017. The company drove a total of 352,544 miles on California roads in 2017 and only had to disengage 63 times, which is about one disengagement for every 5,600 miles traveled. In total, Waymo's self-driving car project has racked up over 4 million autonomous miles driven in California, Arizona and Michigan since its inception.

The advancement of autonomous technology hinges on the widespread public acceptance of it. Many people have reservations about getting into a self-driving car without a driver present. However, having a remote operator on standby might offer some reassurance that someone is watching out for them. This reassurance may be just what the public needs to start accepting self-driving technology and help move the nascent industry forward.

Eric Walz
Originally from New Jersey, Eric is an automotive and technology reporter specializing in the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley. Eric has over fifteen years of automotive experience and a B.A. in computer science. These skills, combined with technical writing and news reporting, allows him to fully understand and identify new and innovative technologies in the automotive industry and beyond. He has worked on self-driving cars and as a technical writer, helping people to understand and work with technology. Outside of work, Eric likes to travel to new places, play guitar, and explore the outdoors.
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