Come April 2, California will see fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) hit the streets after the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) ruled that the cars don’t need a human in the driver’s seat. First proposed in October, the change means that the 50 companies registered to test self-driving cars in the state could start to ramp up the scale of their projects.
The changes come as other states, like Arizona, have seen tech companies ramp up their investments in self-driving cars thanks to a lack regulations. Once the rule takes effect, these vehicles will only need an operator to monitor the car remotely, similar to flying a drone, just in case.
Uber, Google’s self-driving car initiative Waymo, General Motors and other big-name players in the industry hailed the move as a major step forward in rolling out AVs on a mass scale.
“This is a significant step towards an autonomous future in the state, and signals that California is interested in leading by example in the deployment of autonomous vehicles,” Uber spokesperson, Sarah Abboud told The Sacramento Bee. “With this effort complete, we look forward to working with California as it develops regulations applicable to autonomous trucks.”
Even though it seems as if California is easing off the gas, companies will still be required to report their “disengagements,” or human takeovers. While the self-driving cars being tested for mass market production use an array of cameras, radar sensors and satellite data to navigate, the technology isn’t perfect, and most AVs are tested in flat, open landscapes without pedestrians.
After April we might see self-driving cars expand their reach onto busy streets or highways, but a full-on integration with manned traffic still seems unlikely. The industry leader in disengagements, Waymo, still reports needing a human takeover about every 5,600 miles, even as the company has announced that it would be launching a driverless ride sharing service in Phoenix, Arizona later this year.
Despite the promised safety and environmental benefits that fully autonomous cars would bring (not to mention self-delivering pizzas), consumer advocacy groups have complained that rushing to bring AVs to real streets could endanger lives.
Nonprofit organization Consumer Watchdog railed against the decision, releasing a statement accusing the DMV of prioritizing speed over safety. Although advancements in self-driving technology have been promising, the group wrote, “Even if the robot cars were to reach the highest level of perfection (which they are nowhere near, despite what clever marketing might have you believe!), robot cars will co-exist in a world with other humans, who will continue to act in unpredictable, non-robotic ways. Put simply: the robot car world will not be perfect, despite what the technocrats may have you believe.”
With more autonomous vehicles set to take up space on public streets, it remains to be seen how well they’ll integrate with our messy, irrational transit system.