Future Tense

California Will Let Autonomous Cars Operate Without Anyone Behind the Wheel

Waymo has already been testing cars without contingency drivers in Arizona.
Waymo has already been testing cars without contingency drivers in Arizona.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The California Department of Motor Vehicles announced rule changes on Monday that would allow auto companies to test completely driverless cars on public roads beginning in April. Whereas the state previously required a person to sit behind the wheel in case the autonomous vehicle needed course correction, these cars now only have to have oversight from a remote operator and be capable of communicating with law enforcement and passengers in case anything goes haywire.

“This is a major step forward for autonomous technology in California,” California DMV director Jean Shiomoto said in a statement. “Safety is our top concern and we are ready to begin working with manufacturers that are prepared to test fully driverless vehicles in California.” As of now, 50 companies are testing almost 300 licensed self-driving cars in the state.

Industry experts believe these new, more flexible rules will accelerate the development of a budding self-driving car industry that’s largely based in California. Waymo and Uber have tussled with the state’s regulators in the past over what the manufacturers saw as draconian protocols, so they had been conducting much of their testing in Arizona where there are no regulations for autonomous vehicles. Waymo began operating cars without any contingency drivers in Phoenix last year.

The DMV’s latest move still doesn’t quite create this devil-may-care regulatory climate in California, though the rule changes do bring the state more in line with Florida, where self-driving cars also only require a remote operator. CNBC has also reported that some investors believe China has an edge over the U.S. in jumpstarting its self-driving car industry because the country’s authoritarian government can more quickly loosen traffic regulations.

Cutting down mandatory human involvement, of course, could allow transportation companies to progressively employ fewer and fewer operators. Recode points to a California business called Phantom Auto that has developed technology allowing a single remote operator to monitor five cars at once. As autonomous vehicles advance and become less reliant on manual intervention, the number of cars that operators can simultaneously handle will presumably multiply. Waymo, GM, and Uber have also been developing remote control centers that would function similarly to an air traffic control base.

Not everyone is applauding California’s pruned regulations. John M. Simpson, a director for Consumer Watchdog and persistent skeptic of self-driving cars, said, “A remote test operator will be allowed to monitor and attempt to control the robot car from afar. It will be just like playing a video game, except lives will be at stake.” The advocacy organization’s press release further argues that autonomous driving technology is not sophisticated enough at the moment to eschew an in-car driver.

Aaron Mak is a Slate editorial assistant.