New California Legislation Paves the Way for Driverless Future

New California legislation finally lets companies remove the human element from autonomous vehicle technology, allowing self-driving or completely autonomous vehicles to perform tests on public roads.

States are currently working to balance the transition from modern day traffic safety equipment to necessary technology for autonomous cars. The best approach that many policy makers have found is to integrate IoT devices into traffic equipment like safety cones that will communicate with self-driving cars and still alert human drivers of dangerous road conditions. 

With self-driving vehicle testing facilities beginning to dot the nation, it was only a matter of time before local politicians were forced to open the topic for debate.

To date, though, the topic of self-driving vehicles have stopped at the debate phase.

Only five states have actually passed laws admitting self-driving vehicles onto their roads. What’s more, those laws have been fairly restrictive when it comes to the types of autonomous vehicles that are allowed on streets.

However, thanks to a new initiative in California, that might change in the coming years.

An inside view of the new EasyMile driverless car, now being test-driven.
An inside view of the new EasyMile driverless car, now being test-driven.

On September 29, California Governor Jerry Brown enacted a bill that will allow for more extensive real world testing of truly self-driving vehicles.

Unlike the models currently being tested on the streets of the Golden State — in which human drivers need to be present behind the wheel of an automated vehicle to take manual control in the event of a technical failure — California Assembly Bill Number 1592 would allow companies like Google to test self-driving vehicles that “are not equipped with a steering wheel, a brake pedal, or an accelerator.”

Naturally, the bill comes with some caveats. The “public roads” in question only apply to a few streets in the vicinity of a privately owned business park in Contra Costa. In addition, the vehicles are not allowed to go more than 35 miles per hour on any occasion. Finally, there’s the little matter of the $5 million insurance policy that each self-driving vehicle must possess in order to hit the road.

GoMentum Station, the California business park where autonomous cars are legal to drive.
GoMentum Station, the California business park where autonomous cars are legal to drive.

That may sound like a lot of strings attached to Bill 1592, but the fact that the government is willing to allow for even this small measure of experimentation has the potential to push the self-driving vehicle movement forward by leaps and bounds.

California’s Legislation Doubles Down on Innovation

Since 2012, California, Florida, Nevada, and Washington, DC have enacted laws that allow for the testing of self-driving vehicles on public roads. Those laws uniformly require automated vehicles to provide an “operator” to take over in the event of an accident.

Early in the development of prototype self-driving vehicles, that stipulation may have seemed a no-brainer, but the technology behind automated vehicles has advanced so rapidly that an “operator” is almost more of a handicap than a help. California is currently looking into how outfit hazard cones with advanced technology to communicate with autonomous cars on the road. 

For that reason, perhaps the biggest change California has allowed in its revised law is the ability to remove operators from the vehicle themselves. This one change will allow companies to test brand new models on real city streets. The information gleaned from these tests will inform the science of self-driving vehicles immensely.

The autonomous EasyMile EZ10 Model.
The autonomous EasyMile EZ10 Model.

However, the science of the initiative, while exciting, has nothing on the public relations angle for sheer possibility.

As Google puts it on their self-driving car web site, the entry of truly driverless vehicles into a community allows for invaluable feedback regarding, “how the community perceives and interacts with the vehicles.”

Until now, self-driving vehicles were largely unidentifiable unless you knew what you were looking for.

Every self-driving car on the road has an operator in the driver’s seat, so unless you know about Google’s tell tale bubble shape you might miss one of these technological wonders even if you drove past one on the road.

With this new bill, the citizens of Contra Costa will finally come face-to-face with identifiably automated vehicles and for the first time, those looking to make headway in the self-driving vehicle industry will finally get unfiltered feedback on their designs and the public’s feeling about the entire concept of a driverless car.

It goes without saying that the only way for self-driving vehicles to succeed is to find favor with the general public, so this revised legislation could go a long way to helping the makers of automated vehicles gauge their progress in that department.

California’s History of Legislative Trendsetting

Technically, Nevada gets the win when it comes to governing self-driving vehicles, because they were the first to put laws on the books. On the other hand, it seems that California is more than ready to set the future standard when it comes to procedures that govern automated vehicles.

First and foremost, California holds a position as the nation’s innovator in progressive legislation. Whether you agree with the way they do things or not, California is the first state to take a step on a lot of laws that set national trends.

The most obvious example that comes to mind is the passage of medical marijuana regulations in 1996 that have, in the years since, sparked something of a slow about face when it comes to the once taboo substance.

No matter the topic, financial specialists have stated that California’s legislation can have a marked impact on the future laws discussed and implemented by other states. In other words, there’s a litany of examples that point to the fact that California’s new law won’t be the last of its kind.

Self-Driving Cars are the Wave of the Future

A world where human drivers aren’t mucking things up is becoming increasingly inevitable. California’s innovative legislation may very well be mirrored in statehouses across the nation, especially as more and more companies begin testing their own take on the autonomous vehicle.

In recent weeks, both Volvo and Volkswagen have publicly pledged to get self-driving vehicles on the road inside the next five years. While these automated features will still be optional (adding around $10,000 to the price tags of each vehicle), they’re the first step toward a driverless future.

After all, announcements from such high profile car manufacturers can only be the first in a series of similar statements from other industry luminaries.

So, too, it seems that California’s revisions to the DMV statutes will be the first step in a growing national push to get self-driving cars on every street in America.

All images courtesy of EasyMile & GoMentum Station.