For nearly three years, Mountain View residents have become accustomed to seeing self-driving cars zipping around town, but the technology could soon be kicking off its training wheels.
In a big leap, the California Department of Motor Vehicles Friday published new proposed rules that would allow autonomous car companies to test cars without any human driver inside -- meaning self-driving cars would finally be truly driverless. If so, it could be a common sight to see unoccupied "ghost cars" zipping around Mountain View's streets.
"This is really the next step to moving forward the driverless testing and also the public use," said DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez. "A number of (self-driving car manufacturers) will be ready to move forward with driverless testing over the next year to make this happen."
The new rules announced on Friday, March 10, come as the latest step in a fast-paced industry that, in many cases, is leaving regulators racing to catch up. Currently, 27 different manufacturers have permits with the California DMV to test autonomous vehicles in the state, and many of those firms are either based in Mountain View or have an office nearby.
While self-driving cars would no longer need a human behind the wheel, car manufacturers would need to have someone monitoring the vehicles remotely. It isn't clear exactly how this would be accomplished, but reportedly the technology is sufficient to allow human monitors to remotely track autonomous vehicles. DMV officials are not specifying how many vehicles one human could monitor simultaneously.
Many details of the new regulations are being left vague at this point as DMV officials prepare to gather feedback from stakeholders, including industry representatives and consumer advocates. Department officials are planning a public review of the proposed new rules next month, and they will modify them accordingly, Gonzalez said. She said she expected the new rules to take effect by November, at the earliest.
These new regulations could have particular significance for the city of Mountain View because, for the first time, local officials will be required to sanction any testing of driverless vehicles. Originally, DMV officials were mulling the idea of asking local jurisdictions to pass an ordinance or resolution for the testing. That seemed too complicated, so the rules were loosened to force autonomous-car companies to instead seek only "written support" from the jurisdiction.
This cooperation with local authorities would also apply to law enforcement. With no human behind the wheel of a self-driving car, police officers would need a new way to stop these vehicles if they malfunctioned or presented a safety risk. Companies would likely be required to create a new web portal for police to access information on a car's ownership, insurance, its human monitor and how to safely remove it from the roadway, Gonzalez said.
These rules may also open the possibility for regular consumers to take a ride in autonomous vehicles. The new DMV regulations would only prohibit companies from charging riders a fee like a taxi service during this testing phase. But if companies wanted to give regular citizens a free ride -- perhaps as a way to introduce the technology to the public -- that would be allowed, Gonzalez said.
In Mountain View, Google has been the most conspicuous player in the self-driving car market through its spin-off Waymo. Contacted by the Voice, Waymo representatives said they had no comment on the new rules. The company is currently testing 60 self-driving cars throughout California.
Mountain View leaders had a mixed reaction to the news when they were contacted by the Voice on Monday. City Manager Dan Rich said the city would need to further review any regulations to decide how local law enforcement would be involved.
"We have not had a role in this before so we need to learn more about it," Rich said in an email. "We hope this new regulation advances the technology while also ensuring safety to the greatest extent possible."
But other observers have already hailed the new rules as the right step forward to maintain Silicon Valley's edge on innovation.
"California is serious about encouraging the development, testing and deployment of safe autonomous vehicles," state Sen. Jerry Hill said in a statement. "The completion of the regulations is important so our state can maintain its leading edge in this competitive field."