If you are a resident of California, you will have to soon get used to the curious sight of cars driving down the street with no one behind the wheel. This is after the DMV in California received approval for its planned autonomous car laws to allow self-driving cars to operate on public roads, without a safety driver. This measure had originally been put in place to ensure that a human was available to take control, if the artificial intelligence operating the vehicle made a mistake. The approval means that from April 2, Nvidia, Google, GM, Ford, Tesla and other companies within this niche industry, can operate cars, driving in the Golden State, without a driver or passengers.

The new California autonomous car law allows for two permits – the first one for testing purposes and another, for commercial use. The commercial use permit targets companies that offer transportation services to the public, such as delivery vehicles or self-driving taxis. Despite allowing no safety driver on board, the new rules stipulate that there must be a human available to remotely monitor the car at all times, something that is likely to increase the cost of operating autonomous vehicles on a large scale.

autonomous car laws

Definition of an Autonomous Vehicle According to California’s Rules

The new rules define the autonomous mode of a car as: “where technology that is a combination of hardware and software, remote and/or on-board, performs the dynamic driving task, with or without a natural person actively supervising the autonomous technology’s performance of the dynamic driving task.”

The DMV has also revised what it defines as an autonomous test vehicle, which would be legally allowed to drive on California’s public roads as: “a vehicle that has been equipped with technology that is a combination of both hardware and software that, when engaged, performs the dynamic driving task, with or without a natural person continuously controlling the vehicle but requires a human test driver or a remote operator.”

The other conditions set out indicate that a self-driving car must be kitted with Level 4 or 5 autonomous technologies, which are defined by the American Society of Automotive Engineers. At a minimum, the self-driving car regulations require ‘fully autonomous’ systems to be able to ‘perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip.’

lexus autonomous car

Enactment of Autonomous Car Laws by State

In 2011, Nevada became the first state in the US to allow the operation of self-driving cars on its roads. Since then, a number of other states, including Alabama, Illinois, South Carolina, Arkansas, California, Michigan, Colorado, Utah, Virginia, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, and Vermont passed autonomous car laws related to self-driving vehicles.

  • Florida: The state passed its legislation in 2012, indicating that its legislative intent meant to encourage development and testing of autonomous vehicle technology on its roads. In the process, it was discovered that, surprisingly, there was no specific regulation or law that prohibited the use of autonomous driving technology on public roads. The state’s 2016 legislation expanded the allowed operation of self-driving cars but required that there should be a driver present in the vehicle.
  • Virginia: In an announcement, made by governor Terry McAuliffe in June 2015, Virginia would partner with automotive technology firms to carry out research and development on autonomous vehicles in the state, within specific ‘Automated Corridors.’
  • Arizona: Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona signed an executive order in late 2015 that directed various state agencies to take the steps required to support both testing and operation of autonomous vehicles on public roads within the state. In addition, he ordered for the support of pilot programs at selected universities in Arizona, while developing the rules that would be followed by these programs. The order led to the establishment of a Self-Driving Vehicle Oversight Committee, which was set up within the governor’s office.
  • Delaware: Governor John Carney issued an executive order late in 2017 that led to the establishment of an Advisory Council on Connected and Autonomous Vehicles. The council’s task is to offer recommendations and develop the necessary tools and strategies that will prepare the state for autonomous and connected vehicles.
  • Hawaii: An executive order issued in November 2017 and signed by Governor David Ige established the state’s connected autonomous vehicles (CAV) contact within the governor’s office. It requires companies testing self-driving cars and associated technologies in Hawaii to work with government agencies.
  • Massachusetts: Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts signed an executive order in late 2016 that was aimed at promoting the “Testing and Deployment of Highly Automated Driving Technologies.” The result was that a working group on automated vehicles was created. This group is expected to connect with experts in the areas of automation and vehicle safety, support agreements made between automated vehicle companies and the state’s Department of Transport and propose legislation related to self-driving cars.
  • Washington: In June 2017, Governor Jay Inslee signed an executive order that is meant to address testing of autonomous cars within the state and establish a work group on self-driving vehicles. A requirement of the order is that state agencies “support the safe testing and operation of autonomous vehicles on Washington’s public roads.” The order also established an inter-agency work group while enabling pilot programs to be carried out throughout the state. The order sets out the requirements for autonomous cars with or without human operators within the vehicle.
  • Wisconsin: Governor Scott Walker signed an executive order in 2017 that led to the creation of the Governor’s Steering Committee on Autonomous and Connected Vehicle Testing and Deployment. This committee’s primary task is to offer advice to the governor on the best ways to advance testing, development and operation of connected and self-driving vehicles within the state. Additional duties of the committee are: identification of state agencies that have jurisdiction over the testing and deployment of AVs, as well as coordination with agencies to handle any concerns regarding equipment standards, registration, traffic regulations and owner responsibilities, among others.

Is California Moving Too Fast with Driverless Cars?

The idea being touted by the tens of car manufacturers and high-tech firms spending billions of dollars on the development of self-driving vehicles is that autonomy will bring about a more mobile, cleaner and safer society. The country’s politicians are not very far behind in voicing their enthusiasm about the possibilities opened up by the new technology. These are the ideas that have largely pushed the autonomous car laws across the line in California.

Senator Gary Peters, speaking to an ecstatic audience consisting of researchers and executives who had gathered at a recent tech conference in Washington, D.C. said that autonomous vehicle technology is likely to be the biggest development in the automotive industry since the first car rolled off the assembly line. He added that self-driving cars will not just revolutionize how people get around but will also have the “potential to save thousands of lives” each year.

However, some critics say that such bold predictions are generally based on very little actual research. Although developers are continuing to collect lots of data on the algorithms and sensors necessary for a car to drive itself, there is barely any research on the environmental, social and economic effects of automated vehicles. They also insist that truly autonomous driving, free of any human interaction, is still a few decades away. Their consensus is that since it is difficult to study something that does not exist, the industry and government have filled the void with speculation, as well as contrasting utopian and dystopian visions of the future.

The utopian view of autonomous motoring sees large fleets of accessible AVs offering rides with a simple tap of a screen. The ubiquity of these vehicles allows the expansion of transport options for everyone. When AVs become commonplace, traffic accidents will become a thing of the past, with new government regulations resulting in easing of traffic jams and parking problems. Electric-powered AVs would then shrink consumption of fossil fuels and reduce pollution. Commuting will become less stressful and more productive, since former drivers would be able to read or work as they are whisked to their destinations.

On the other hand – the dystopian view – the newfangled driverless cars only add to many of the world’s problems. Freed from the need to drive, people would become more heavily reliant on cars, with a resulting increase in congestion, pollution and energy consumption. Because they are productive even during their commute, people would be tempted to move farther from their workplaces, resulting in urban sprawl. Unexpected glitches in the AI software could result in repeated recalls and could trigger massive disruptions.

volvo self-driving car

The Companies Ready to Take Advantage of New Driverless Car Laws in California

In November 2017, Google’s autonomous car division, Waymo, announced that it would start testing completely automated cars that would have no one in the driver’s seat. GM has also lodged a petition with the federal government to approve the mass production of a driverless vehicle without a steering wheel or pedals, planning to release the car in 2019. The fact that autonomous vehicles are about to transition from lab projects to actual, shipping products is among the reasons for the impending California and Nevada autonomous car laws, and why so many states have issued executive orders preparing for the passing of similar legislation.

A new report issued by consulting firm Navigant has ranked the major players who are shaking up the emerging autonomous vehicle industry. The firm’s analysts consider Waymo and GM as the clear leaders, with Daimler (in collaboration with Bosch), the Volkswagen Group and Ford also staking a strong claim.

Domination of the driverless car segment requires the twin pronged approach of developing cutting edge artificial intelligence, while at the same time building the capacity to mass-produce cars that contain the computing hardware and sensors needed for true autonomy. In this respect, the OEMs and Silicon Valley technology companies face diametrically opposed challenges. For instance, Waymo leads the way in the development of AV software, but requires a partner that can help it manufacture the vehicles to run its software. On the other hand, car companies can build vehicles, but lack the knowhow necessary for sophisticated driverless software.

Besides the carmakers and software companies, other firms are poised to benefit from the new autonomous car laws in California. Uber, a company that has often clashed with the state’s regulators, praised the DMV for taking what it termed a ‘significant step.’ However, it urged California to push further out of its comfort zone by allowing the testing of self-driving trucks. Still, Uber spokesperson, Sarah Abboud, lauded the state’s efforts to lead by example. Currently, Uber is involved in the testing of self-driving cars in Arizona, a state with minimal regulation on autonomous vehicles. When questioned, Uber officials did not formally indicate when they would begin testing in California.

UBER self-driving cars


One thing that tech and transportation experts believe is that fully autonomous cars and trucks driving on public roads is an eventual certainty. However, it is still unclear exactly how the vehicles will be used. Already, there are transport agencies laying down plans for self-driving shuttle buses, with a significant number of companies exploring the possibility of buying AVs for use in their corporate fleets.

Autonomous vehicles are likely to be mass produced for consumer use at some point in the future. Among the strongest supporters of this development are advocates for the disabled, who are pushing for faster development of the technology to offer more mobility options for non-drivers.

California’s permits, that put AVs without a safety driver on the road, bring up the need for companies to establish higher safety thresholds. Besides the need for remote monitoring of the car’s functions, it is essential for the car to be able to obey traffic laws, just as a human driver should do. There are also provisions for the police to deactivate a malfunctioning vehicle and contact the owner of the car.

If the companies can offer proof that their autonomous cars are truly safe for use on public roads and are secured from other technological issues, like cyber attacks, California has indicated that it would grant a further permit that would open the way for commercial use of self-driving vehicles.