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No Test Driver? No Problem: California May Make Testing Self-Driving Cars Easier

A revised draft of regulations proposes doing away with drivers during tests

1 min read
A Google self driving SUV on the streets of Mountain View, California
Photo: Kim Kulish/Corbis/Getty Images

Self-driving cars without steering wheels or pedals might have gotten a little bit closer to reality late last week. On Friday, the California Department of Motor Vehicles released a revised draft of regulations that could give more flexibility to autonomous car manufacturers than they have today. The proposed regulations allow testing driverless cars that pass a federal safety inspection, even with no driver in the car.

At the moment, states with self-driving car regulation normally require the presence of drivers. In California, 15 companies have permits to test vehicles as long as there is a licensed driver along for the ride, according to Reuters. On Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill for testing vehicles without steering wheels or pedals, but the pilot program only applies to vehicles traveling below 56 kph (35 mph) in a privately-owned business park.

In December, a year after a deadline set by state legislature, the California DMV released a first draft of regulation that would always require a driver’s presence at the steering wheel. Friday’s revision is a shift—allowing autonomous cars that pass a 15-point safety inspection by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to function without drivers.

The safety assessment would take into account the vehicle’s ability to avoid objects and pedestrians, cybersecurity, ethics, and backup plans if a system fails, for example.

The DMV is inviting interested members of the public to discuss the redrafted regulations during a workshop on 19 October in Sacramento.

If passed as law, the rules could potentially have implications for Alphabet (Google) and other self-driving car hopefuls, as the Associated Press reports. The Google Self-Driving Car Project has prototyped cars with only start and emergency stop buttons.

A spokesman for Google would not comment on the development.

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Self-Driving Cars Work Better With Smart Roads

Intelligent infrastructure makes autonomous driving safer and less expensive

9 min read
A photograph shows a single car headed toward the viewer on the rightmost lane of a three-lane road that is bounded by grassy parkways, one side of which is planted with trees. In the foreground a black vertical pole is topped by a crossbeam bearing various instruments. 

This test unit, in a suburb of Shanghai, detects and tracks traffic merging from a side road onto a major road, using a camera, a lidar, a radar, a communication unit, and a computer.

Shaoshan Liu

Enormous efforts have been made in the past two decades to create a car that can use sensors and artificial intelligence to model its environment and plot a safe driving path. Yet even today the technology works well only in areas like campuses, which have limited roads to map and minimal traffic to master. It still can’t manage busy, unfamiliar, or unpredictable roads. For now, at least, there is only so much sensory power and intelligence that can go into a car.

To solve this problem, we must turn it around: We must put more of the smarts into the infrastructure—we must make the road smart.

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