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Autonomous cars without human drivers are coming to California next year

Self-driving car tests: California rules updated

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has updated its rules governing self-driving vehicle testing, removing the requirement that a human backup driver be present in the car and ready to take over. The regulations will be sent to the state government after a 15-day comment period, and should be in force by the middle of next year.

Under current California law, any autonomous vehicle being tested on public roads needs a human backup driver physically present. Although the car can be fully driving itself, the driver needs a full set of controls so that they can disengage the system at a moment’s notice to avoid a collision.

Given the number of tech companies in the state, California is the most important state in the country when it comes to testing autonomous vehicles. 42 companies are currently registered with some 285 autonomous vehicles being tested currently, and over 1,000 drivers are specially trained and registered to supervise those autonomous vehicles while they’re on the road. Just a couple days ago, Uber put out a video showing how the supervision process works, and how its drivers are specially trained to take over control from the computer if needed.

Under the new rules, autonomous cars without a human driver will need a “minimal risk condition,” basically a “safe mode” that the car can default to if the autonomous sensors or computers fail. Presumably, that will be something like pulling over to the side of the road and putting on hazard lights until it can drive again.

The DMV is also including a requirement that the autonomous vehicle be remotely monitored if there isn’t a driver physically in the car. The remote monitor could potentially take control of the vehicle, as well as communicate with passengers and first responders in the event of a crash.

Assuming there’s no huge public backlash against the rules, they’ll be given to the state government to finalize before the end of the year. The new regulations should be in force sometime next year, although it may take a while after for companies to build out fully autonomous cars that comply with the new regulations.