California braces for driverless cars as state issues regulations proposal

In the Bay Area tech Mecca, self-driving vehicles are already on the roads, allowed under state law as long as companies obtain a $150 California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) permit and have a human operator inside monitoring the vehicle's maneuvers through traffic.

On Friday, the California DMV filed a 33-page proposal for new autonomous vehicle regulations, aimed at striking a balance between maintaining public safety and putting the brakes on innovation.

The new rules would ease current regulations and allow manufacturers to leave the driver's seat empty and use a remote operator instead.

"That remote operator would be monitoring the vehicle at all times and also have two-way communication with the passengers or possibly law enforcement or first responders if needed," said DMV spokeswoman Jessica Gonzalez.

So far, 27 manufacturers statewide have received DMV autonomous vehicle test permits.

Gonzalez says the new state regulations are essential because the federal government so far has issued no guidance for driverless vehicle technologies operating on public roads.

"Really what this comes down to is safety. We need to both ensure that these manufacturers, the vehicles that they're putting on the road are safe not only for the people to use but those around us," said Gonzalez.

The new regulations would require companies to submit a Law Enforcement Interaction Plan so officers and first responders know how to take control of self-driving vehicles in an emergency.

Companies also would have to alert local jurisdictions in all areas where their driverless cars are being tested.

There would be a ban on charging customers for rides in test vehicles.

Manufacturers would be required to submit the names of all remote operators and provide training for them.

The proposed rules would also create a new deployment visa that would allow companies to deploy driverless cars as part of their business. Requirements would be stringent, involving documentation that the vehicles can comply with all of the DMV traffic laws in various weather conditions.

Fees for the new testing and deployment visas would be $3,600 for a two-year permit, compared to the current $150 for a one-year test permit.

The idea of future driverless cars captivates Alondra Macias, 7, of San Jose, but her father fears for the public's safety.

"Concerned about the safety of child and ourselves. I mean, car is running by itself and who knows something can go wrong," said Ismail Macias.

Last year, an Uber autonomous vehicle was caught on camera running a red light. Uber said it was human error and battled with the DMV by launching self-driving SUV service without a permit. The company finally capitulated, getting its DMV permit Wednesday.

One Uber driver is looking down the road and says he already had applied to be a monitor for one of the self-driving cars.

"It's not really good for everyone, but we have to realize we're going to the future," said Ernest Johns of Daly City.

One manufacturer American Honda said in a statement, "...thoughtful, coordinated federal and state guidelines that encourage innovation and enable testing will reduce the time it will take to bring automated vehicles to market and provide our customers increased confidence in their performance."

The DMV will accept public comment for the next 45 days with a public hearing scheduled for April 25th in Sacramento.