The law is finally catching up to driverless cars. As of September 16, the state of California—home of auto newcomer Google—will require test drivers to have a special license, like a trucker or school bus driver. They will need to be employees or contractors of the car manufacturer, complete safety training, and have clean road records. Carmakers themselves will have to apply for a testing permit annually, install manual controls and override systems in each car, submit incident reports and secure $5 million in insurance.
These new rules come into effect at a time when a handful of players, including Google and Nissan, are testing driverless technologies. Up until now, autonomous test vehicles have had a spotless record; Google's fleet of modified Lexus sedans, for instance, has driven more than 700,000 miles without an accident. The most pressing issue for the California Department of Motor Vehicles and manufacturers is ensuring the ongoing safety of these cars—prototypes, all—and the cars around them.
In essence, regulators are trying to keep pace with driverless technology, says Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University. The upcoming California laws will make many of the safety checks already in place in driverless prototypes, including the presence of a human operator and a vehicle that is street legal, mandatory. (That means that Google engineers will need to add manual controls to the company's new self-driving car before it can go onto public roads.) The California dmv is not stipulating anything about the technologies themselves, which keeps companies free to test new systems.
Laws will continue to evolve as the technology becomes more advanced. By December the California dmv will release another set of regulations laying out the requirements for everyday drivers to pilot autonomous vehicles. A second set may also be necessary for cars that drive themselves absent any driver. But that does not mean we will be hailing robo taxis by this time next year. Nissan says it will not roll out a driverless car until 2020, and everyone else will also proceed with caution. “Every company wants to have the first self-driving car,” Walker Smith says, “but no one wants to have the first self-driving car crash.”