Want a self-driving car? Regulators consider public use

Friday, October 14, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 42

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California regulators asked members of the public Wednesday what they think about proposed regulations that would — eventually — permit self-driving cars that lack a steering wheel or pedals on public roads.

The state's Department of Motor Vehicles hosted the workshop in the state Capitol. Among those planning to comment were representatives of companies developing these cars of the future and skeptics who worry regulators are being pushed to embrace the technology before it is ready for the masses.

For now, self-driving cars are still in the prototype phase, and California's roads and highways are their real-world testing grounds. The technology's most bullish supporters suggest the cars could be ready for market within a year or two.

The regulations that department officials drafted will govern how everyday people can get and use the cars once companies — and federal regulators — conclude they are safe. The proposed rules were supposed to be in place by Jan. 1, 2015. They have taken several years to write, partly because the technology is so new and complex that regulators have struggled with how to ensure the cars are safe enough for widespread use.

In permitting prototype testing, regulators required a trained driver behind the wheel, to take over just in case. Now the department is trying to balance safety with the interests of companies in a rapidly evolving industry which could transform how people get around.

In December, the department released an initial draft of regulations that required a licensed driver in self-driving vehicles. Companies including Alphabet, where the pioneering Google self-driving car project is housed, reacted with great disappointment, as the ultimate vision of many companies is a car that has no wheel or pedals.

In September, the department updated its proposal. The new language, the subject of Wednesday's hearing, pivoted regulators' position from cautious to bullish. Gone was the requirement of a licensed driver; California was open to permitting cars which could drive around without a person inside at all, if the federal government gave its blessing that the make and model is safe.

In an interview, California Secretary of Transportation Brian Kelly explained the pivot by citing a close collaboration between the Department of Motor Vehicles and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in developing a model framework for state regulators. That federal policy was released in late September.

On Wednesday, in a show of unity the top federal authorities on self-driving cars were seated in the front row.