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New California law allows autonomous shuttle test without driver

It only applies to testing and the crossing of one public road, but a new bill signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown allows the deployment of testing self-driving shuttles with no driver, according to Reuters.

French firm EasyMile has partnered with the Contra Costa Transportation Authority on a pilot project at the 585-acre Bishop Ranch business park in San Ramon. The company’s EZ10 shuttles, which are also called Shared Driverless Vehicles (SDVs), are used in controlled locations in Finland, France, Italy, Spain, and Switzerland. Applications in Europe include amusement park shuttles and a parking lot shuttle near a beach. In addition to internal mapping software, the EZ10s have sensors to avoid vehicles, pedestrians, and other obstacles.

Related: Federal autonomous vehicle regulations and policies released

The vehicles in Europe have no brakes, accelerators, or steering wheels. The California office park vehicles were going to require modification to provide those mechanical control elements, but the new California law rules out that requirement as well as the need for human drivers.

Fifteen self-driving vehicle projects are already under way in California from car makers and tech companies, but those test vehicles must have brakes and a steering wheel as well as a human in the driver’s seat.  With that in mind, the Bishop Ranch office park test is breaking new ground.

The two EZ10 office park test vehicles, which are limited to less than 25 mph, won’t carry human passengers until as much as six months of testing has passed without drivers or passengers. The law change was required because the office park transportation loop crosses a public road at one point. But that may be all it takes, as more similar projects can follow, although conditions will likely still be tight.

California has extremely restrictive laws for testing self-driving vehicles, to the point that Google and some other companies have taken testing to other states. When the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued guidelines for autonomous vehicles last week, a point was made was to clarify which elements of regulation and policy were matters for states to decide and which should be controlled by the federal government.

It was clear in the NHTSA guidelines that the DOT wants regulations for use of public roads to be consistent from state to state, and therefore fall under federal policy and oversight.