SAN FRANCISCO — California regulators have given the green light to truly driverless cars.
The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles said Monday that it is eliminating a requirement for autonomous vehicles to have a person in the driver’s seat to take over in the event of an emergency. The new rule goes into effect on April 2.
California has given 50 companies a license to test self-driving vehicles in the state. The new rules also require companies to be able to operate the vehicle remotely — a bit like a flying military drone — and communicate with law enforcement and other drivers when something goes wrong.
The changes signal a step toward the wider deployment of autonomous vehicles. One of the main economic benefits touted by proponents of driverless vehicles is that they will not be limited by human boundaries and can do things like operate 24 hours in a row without a drop-off in alertness or attentiveness. Taking the human out of the front seat is an important psychological and logistical step before truly driverless cars can hit the road.
“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.”
While most of the companies leading the race for driverless cars are based in California, some have started testing autonomous vehicles in Arizona, where the state government has taken a more hands-off approach to the technology. Arizona has not created regulations for autonomous vehicles.
Waymo, the self-driving car unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet, started testing autonomous vehicles without safety drivers on Arizona roads in October. Since then, it has picked up passengers in driverless vehicles and it plans to launch a ride-hailing service without human drivers later this year.
Uber has also deployed autonomous vehicles in Arizona, but it uses safety drivers in those cars.
“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.
John M. Simpson, a director for Consumer Watchdog, a frequent critic of Alphabet’s self-driving car initiative, said the new rules will threaten highway safety as remote operators attempt “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.”
California requires companies to report the number of “disengagements,” or instances when human drivers are forced to take over for the autonomous vehicle. Waymo had the fewest number of disengagements — based on a per mile basis — of all the companies testing cars on California roads.
Between Dec. 2016 and Nov. 2017, Waymo’s self-driving cars drove about 350,000 miles and human drivers intervened 63 times — or about 5,600 miles between every disengagement. Over the last few years, Waymo has made steady progress in reducing the instances where people need to retake the wheel.