Driverless cars will be tested in California for the first time without a person behind a steering wheel under new rules that state regulators approved Monday for the fast-developing technology.
The regulations are a major step toward getting autonomous vehicles to dealerships and onto the streets of California, where companies such as Tesla and Waymo are leading the way on the technology. Until now, driverless cars could only be tested on public roads in the state if a person could take the wheel in an emergency.
“I think this is a move that had to happen for California to stay competitive in this field,” said Nidhi Kalra, a Rand Corp. senior scientist who has been studying the issue for a decade.
Although the technology is being developed in California, companies such as Waymo have already been testing in other states such as neighboring Arizona because requiring a human driver limits the kind of car that can be tested, she said.
“You can’t test what true, full autonomy looks like” unless there’s no driver at all, Kalra said. “To be able to test it right in your backyard is a really big deal.”
But the advocacy group Consumer Watchdog slammed the new rules, claiming autonomous cars have not yet been proven safe enough to be deployed without a human backup driver.
“It will be just like playing a video game, except lives will be at stake,” said John Simpson, the group’s privacy and technology project director.
Fifty companies already have permits to test on public roads and highways in California, a prime proving ground given its size as the most populous state, its clout as the nation’s biggest car market and its longtime role as a cultural trendsetter.