California Driverless Car Regs Stuck in Neutral

Stephen Feyer

While California companies such as Google and the start-up Cruise Automation may be far ahead in self-driving car technology, the state of California has fallen behind in regulating them.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles missed its January 1 deadline to create new regulations for public use of self-driving cars, citing a need for more time to address safety concerns.

The DMV has delayed because it does not know how to certify self-driving vehicles are safe – federal certification standards do not exist. The state can choose to develop its own safety testing method, authorize a private third party to develop and implement testing, or allow manufacturers to self-certify that their autonomous vehicles are safe.

Google expressed a strong preference for self-certification before an audience of manufacturers at a January hearing on the impending regulations.

For now, California state law only allows manufacturers to test autonomous vehicles on public roads. The state was the first to allow such testing in 2012, and has since been joined by Nevada, Florida, and Michigan, according to the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University.

The most recent California legislation was an amendment introduced by state Assemblyman Mike Gatto that may be heard on March 31, according to the state’s legislative information service.

California’s testing rules went into effect in 2014, and require a manufacturer to take several steps in order to use its vehicle on public roads. The rules call for:

  • Manufacturer must register the test vehicle with DMV;
  • Manufacturer must have completed previous autonomous vehicle testing under controlled conditions;
  • Manufacturer uses qualified test drivers who complete a training program and obey all provisions of the Vehicle Code;
  • Manufacturer test drivers sit in the driver seat and are capable of immediately taking control of the vehicle;
  • Manufacturer reports to DMV any accident involving a test vehicle or any situation where the autonomous technology disengages during operation;
  • Manufacturer maintains $5 million insurance or surety bond.

As of October 31, the latest date for which the California DMV has released information, seven manufacturers are permitted to test autonomous vehicles in California: Volkswagen Group of America, Mercedes Benz, Google, Delphi Automotive, Tesla Motors, Bosch, and Nissan.

Once a vehicle has been built or modified to become a registered test autonomous car, California state law restricts what can next be done with it. Upon completion of testing, the vehicle can be dismantled, transferred to another permitted manufacturer, or donated to a museum or institution. Unfortunately for California’s avid fans of driverless cars, these first models will never be made available for the public to drive.

Perhaps that too will change when the state completes its rules on the testing of driverless cars on its roads.

Stephen Feyer is a James R. Swartz Entrepreneurial Fellow and MBA at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.