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Will California Allow Self-Driving Cars in 2017?

Though no manufacturers presently feel that their self-driving vehicles are ready for the road just yet, California regulators have laid out a path that makes it possible for them to be on state roads as early as 2017.

California's Big Push for Autonomous Vehicles

With no federal rules currently in place on the subject, it has been left up to individual states to determine if and when they will allow self-driving vehicles on their roads and to make their own traffic law changes. California has been at the forefront of the development of these vehicles, mostly thanks to a great deal of investment in them by major Silicon Valley companies such as Google. The state has given Google permission to conduct tests of their self-driving Toyota and Lexus sedans on public roads in normal traffic, most of which have been done in the San Francisco Bay Area over the course of the past few years.

The fleet of cars have cumulatively driven over one million miles on California roads during this time and have proven to be relatively safe thus far. They have been involved in 14 minor collisions during this time with no injuries, and in most of these cases another driver was at least partially responsible.

Current Regulations and Laws

The current California regulation framework calls for manufacturers to directly lease their vehicles to consumers for a period of no more than three years. During that time, they are required to perform an ongoing collection of safety data and report it to the state. Some form of manufacturer safety certification would also need to be put into place. Drivers would be required to undergo a safety training course and to get a special endorsement on their license, and could be held liable if the vehicle malfunctions. The cars also must have steering wheels and pedals, allowing the driver to quickly take manual control when necessary.

These regulations could potentially be finalized by early 2017, but it is still questionable as to whether any manufacturer will have a vehicle that is ready for the market by that time. Of manufacturers that have issued formal statements on the readiness of their vehicles in development, only Audi has expressed confidence that their self-driving A8 will be ready for primetime in 2017. Google had hoped to have their own vehicle ready by 2018, though the proposed new regulations represent a setback to their internal model, which is presently being designed without a steering wheel. Volkswagen and Baidu expect to have their models available in 2019. Most other manufacturers are projecting their first self-driving models to be deployed somewhere between 2020 and 2025.

Will These Tests Be Enough?

The primary concern that the California DMV has expressed is that the road testing done thus far has been in circumstances that are too narrow. There has been no testing of these vehicles on public roads in heavy rain or snow, for example. The DMV also wants to see manufacturers other than Google perform successful road tests of their vehicles prior to allowing them for consumer use. So while the basic legal framework for getting self-driving vehicles is likely to be in place sometime in 2017, the need for further testing and development will probably keep them off the market until 2018 and beyond.

Competition From Texas

Even though California is proceeding slowly and with caution, the state is still the farthest along in preparing to allow drivers to hit the road in one of these vehicles. The only serious competitor thus far is Texas, which has been making a major push since 2015 to be the first in the nation to have self-driving vehicles on its roads. Google has been testing its cars in Austin and many members of state government have voiced approval for fast-tracking the effort, but the state currently does not have a regulatory framework in place comparable to the one the California DMV has drafted.

It looks to be at least a couple of years before California drivers have to worry about the complications of self-driving vehicles on their roads, and likely even longer than that for other states. Traffic laws for these vehicles have already begun to take shape, however, and it is something all drivers will need to consider going forward.

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