California passes bill regulating autonomous cars

google-self-driving-carAre self-driving cars the future of motoring? State governments seem to think so. Last June, Nevada legalized autonomous cars and ordered its Department of Motor Vehicles to write regulations for them. Now, California has become the second state to regulate these robo-vehicles. The bill passed the California State Senate 37-0 and is pending approval by the State Assembly.

Unlike Nevada, California did not pass a bill explicitly legalizing autonomous cars. The cars were never illegal (Google has been testing a fleet of self-driving cars on California roads for some time), so that legislative step was unnecessary. Instead, California lawmakers tried to define what makes a car autonomous. That may seem a little pedantic, but it was meant to exempt cars with some autonomous systems, like lane keep assist and radar-guided cruise control, from the regulations.

Under the new regulations, autonomous cars will need an easily-activated mechanism for taking the them out of self-driving mode. A human driver will be in the front seat for all testing, ready to take over if the autonomous systems malfunction.

The California law is less comprehensive than Nevada’s. In the Silver State, companies looking to test autonomous cars (they are not approved for public use) must submit an application to the DMV, which includes the specific locations where the car will be tested. The locations and the car itself are subject to approval by the DMV, so self-driving cars do not have free reign.

As with California, self-driving cars in Nevada need a mechanism for shutting of a car’s autonomous systems, and a qualified human behind the wheel. In addition, Nevada requires that cars have a warning system that can alert the human operator in case of a malfunction. If cars meet these, and other, regulations, the Nevada DMV issues a red license plate. The first of these plates went to Google, which is fitting since the company petitioned Nevada to pass the law in the first place.

California isn’t quite ready to create a testing environment for autonomous cars. The less-comprehensive bill passed by the State Senate seems more focused on defining what an autonomous car is, and acknowledging that these vehicles require different regulations than the ones driven by humans. After all, the time to regulate the robots is before they hit public roads in large numbers, not after. These cars may be able to drive themselves, but some level of accountability is needed.