Tech Talk: California Partially Legalized Full-Auto Cars

October 6, 2016 - Written By Daniel Fuller

Vehicles with absolutely no way for the human inside to exert control are Google’s ultimate aim, and that of many other companies. It is a noble and very understandable goal; after all, it’s the only way to bring about the kind of transportation revolution that people wanting to build self-driving cars have envisioned from day one. Such vehicles are abundant in promise, but also quite scary for obvious reasons. It is for these reasons that some states either did not address self-driving cars in their laws at all, or simply banned testing of completely driver-free autonomous vehicles on public roads altogether. California was one of these states, leaving hometown hero Google gravely disappointed.

Thanks to recent federal intervention, and even direct advocacy by President Obama himself, federal guidelines for self-driving cars are finally in place. Though they can be overridden by state laws and still ban fully driverless cars on pubic roads, the new federal laws have given states some thinking to do, and given nearly free range to self-driving car makers in states that simply refuse to participate in the whole kerfluffle. It is against this backdrop that a new bill in California has made its way into law. This new bill allows completely autonomous cars to be tested on public roads, with some caveats. Namely, they cannot exceed 35 miles per hour, must be insured for $5 million, and can only strut their stuff in certain designated areas of the public right-of-way. Lastly, anybody riding inside one of these totally autonomous cars must be told in no uncertain terms any ways that their personal data may be used. Clearly meant to be a ‘testing the waters’ affair, this law will not allow the sort of personal transit revolution that self-driving cars were made for, but it is a step in the right direction, and others are bound to take notice.

States and tech companies alike are bound to see this as a sign of things to come, and not only likely hop on board, but perhaps ape California’s approach. Allowing innovation while keeping strict control is likely viewed as a best possible outcome by most governing bodies caught up in the rise of the self-driving car. A bit more significant, however, are the implications for the tech world. Silicon Valley hosts a huge portionĀ of the modern tech industry, and the entire area is in a market practically made for tech companies and startups. This makes setting up operations in California attractive already, and some developers of self-driving cars besides Google, such as Baidu, have already done so. This new law, however, essentially makes it open season on testing fully self-driving cars, a condition that’s not entirely easy to find in such otherwise already attractive areas of the States.

Since Federal guidelines indicate that completely driverless cars still aren’t allowed on public roads, this means that states that previously banned the practice or allowed it in a very limited capacity will be watching how events unfold in California very, very closely; in essence, what’s going on in California is an experiment, and if it is successful, fully autonomous cars that neither need nor accept human input from inside the cab could start testing nationwide, and if those tests are successful, could end up on just about all public roads. A number of big names in tech and auto have been saying for some time now that by 2020, robots will, without exception, drive better than humans, and our public roadways will be that much safer by virtue of their presence eliminating a number of human drivers. This also means that those who otherwise could not drive will suddenly have cheap, if not free, access to personal transport 24/7. This is the transportation revolution, and California just took the first step toward it.