California opens road to public use of autonomous cars

Manufacturers could start leasing autonomous cars to the public

California has published the world's first regulations dealing with the routine use of autonomous cars on city streets -- a big step toward the day when computers, not humans, are in charge of cars.

But the draft rules published on Wednesday don't go as far as some companies might have hoped. For now, they specifically exclude fully autonomous driverless cars that wouldn't even have a steering wheel.

Currently, use of autonomous vehicles has been restricted to trained employees of companies like Google, Mercedes Benz and Toyota, but the draft rules propose the general public be allowed to operate the vehicles.

This could, for example, allow car makers to lease autonomous vehicles to members of the public -- something that would provide valuable real-world data about the car's performance and its ability to handle diverse traffic situations.

Anyone hoping to jump in the driver's seat of an autonomous car will need to hold a regular driving license and an additional autonomous vehicle operator certificate issued by the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles), according to the proposed regulations.

Google self driving car Martyn Williams

A Google self-driving navigates streets near the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California, on June 29, 2015.

The operator won't be able to sit back and take their eyes off the road. They must be ready to take over from the computer at any time should it encounter a problem. The operator will also be responsible for safe operation of the car and any traffic tickets.

Car makers will have to certify the car's safety and put it through a third-party safety test to demonstrate its ability to perform maneuvers typical of real-world road conditions. And as a condition of their three-year deployment permits, car makers will have to report monthly on their performance, safety and usage.

A key aspect of the new regulations also cover cybersecurity and privacy.

Car makers will have to disclose to drivers any information the autonomous vehicle collects that is not necessary for safe operation of the vehicle and obtain written approval to collect it.

And cars will have to be able to detect cyberattacks or unauthorized intrusions and include an override system that gives the human operator control of the vehicle in the event of such an attack.

The rules published on Wednesday are still just a draft. They have to go through a rule-making process that is expected to take at least half a year, so they aren't likely to become law until the second half of 2016.

There are already just over 100 autonomous driving prototypes on the streets in California. About three-quarters of them are owned by Google X and tested daily on trips around the company's Mountain View headquarters. Many of the Google cars are capable of operating completely driverless for most of each journey but employees are still capable or taking over should there be a problem.

Google self driving car Martyn Williams

A Google self-driving navigates streets near the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California, on June 29, 2015.

The technology to remove the driver control is a good deal more advanced and the DMV said it needs more time to examine the unique issues posed by truly driverless cars.

"Given the potential risks associated with deployment of such a new technology, DMV believes that manufacturers need to obtain more experience in testing driverless vehicles on public roads prior to making this technology available to the general public," the DMV said in the draft rules.

The DMV anticipates publishing rules governing such fully driverless cars in the future.

Another 10 automakers are also part of the DMV's program, including Ford, which announced its driverless car plans yesterday.

ric pa autonomous fusion Ford

A Ford Fusion prototype autonomous vehicle shown outside the company's research lab in Palo Alto, California.

While the new regulations pave the way to wider use of the cars, current technology will still limit the geographic area in which they can travel. Most autonomous cars use LIDAR (light detection and ranging) sensors on the roof to produce an accurate, laser scan of the surroundings.

The cars aren't sophisticated enough to analyze images on the fly and instead match them to a database of previously recorded images. That means the cars are restricted in autonomous mode to premapped roads. But that, as with all technology, is expected to improve with more research.

The DMV will hold two public meetings to get feedback from members of the public -- one on Jan. 28, 2016, in Sacramento and one on Feb. 2, 2016, in Los Angeles.

Here are the rules:

Draft autonomous driving regulations issued by the California DMV on Dec. 16, 2015. California DMV

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Martyn Williams

IDG News Service
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