California Sets Autonomous Vehicle Rules, Audi Pulls First Permit | Edmunds

California Sets Autonomous Vehicle Rules, Audi Pulls First Permit

Just the Facts:
  • Only test vehicles are covered — there is no approval yet for privately owned autonomous vehicles, although that's coming soon.
  • Test drivers still must sit in the driver seat and pay attention to the road.
  • Audi intends to start testing on California highways right away.

SACRAMENTO, California — California drivers are used to seeing unusual sights on their highways — other drivers shaving, applying eye make-up and even reading papers and magazines. Now, with increasing frequency, they'll be seeing drivers with hands off the wheel and feet flat on the floor.

The state's Department of Motor Vehicles on Tuesday issued its new regulations governing the operation of autonomous vehicles — sometimes called self-driving cars — on California highways.

The state is one of the first to permit manufacturers to test self-driving vehicles on public roads and German luxury-car maker Audi was first to apply and receive a permit to begin such testing. Right behind were Mercedes-Benz and Google, and many other automakers and top-tier component developers such as Continental AG are expected to follow. Nevada, Florida and Michigan also allow testing of autonomous cars on public roads.

The state hasn't yet permitted operation of self-driving vehicles by members of the public, but a state law requires rules governing how manufacturers must certify such vehicles to be ready by the end of the year.

The rules aren't too complex. First and foremost, the operators of autonomous vehicles are subject to all the same traffic regulations that regular drivers must follow.

Additionally, permission to operate an autonomous vehicle on a public road in California is limited to manufacturer-registered test cars; the manufacturer must have completed autonomous testing of the vehicle and its systems under controlled (test facility) conditions, and drivers must be qualified vehicle test drivers, employed by the automaker, who have completed an autonomous vehicle training program. 

The vehicle must have a fully operational driver's system — including steering wheel and accelerator and brake pedals, and the test driver must sit in the driver seat and be "capable of immediately taking control of the vehicle" if the autonomous system ceases to do its job.

So, no, there will not be any driverless, sponge-rubber Google cars and no backward-facing drivers playing poker on the way to work with the guys in the backseat.

Finally the manufacturer has to carry a $5 million insurance policy or surety bond and must agree to report to the state DMV any accident involving the autonomous test vehicle, as well as any situation in which the vehicle's autonomous functions unexpectedly stop working during a test drive.

The DMV — prompted by state lawmakers — wanted to get the rules for test cars published quickly, to facilitate testing. But the agency didn't stop there. It already is working on rules for operation of autonomous vehicles by members of the public.

First up, though, will be rules — due by January 1, 2015, establishing requirements that automakers must meet to certify the safety and roadworthiness of their autonomous vehicles for the general public to operate. 

Various active safety systems already available on many cars — features such as front collision mitigation, lane-keeping assistance and even traction and stability control — all are part and parcel of the technology suite required to have a self-driving car: the DNA of autonomous driving.

No manufacturer has yet offered a complete package, but Nissan said late last year it would be able to begin selling autonomous vehicles by 2020 if the market is ready.  Cadillac and Toyota both have promised to take giant steps toward autonomous driving by launching various models with vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology, beginning in 2017. From Audi to Volvo, almost every major automaker, in fact, has some sort of autonomous driving project underway.

Audi says it plans to use its new California permit to begin immediate testing in the San Francisco area of a specially equipped "autonomous" A7 sedan.

The automaker has been at the forefront of research "taking automated driving from science fiction to pre-production readiness" and obtaining the first California permit "shows that we intend to remain the leader in this vital technology frontier," Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America, said in a statement released Tuesday. 

Edmunds says: It is amazing how quickly a technology can move into the mainstream when government gets behind it.

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