California says self-driving cars need steering wheels, drivers at the ready

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Under new draft rules proposed on Wednesday, California is set to mandate that any self-driving car must have a driver behind the wheel. The car will also need to have a steering wheel, and the driver must be ready to take control of the car if the system fails.

While it sounds almost obvious that even a autonomous vehicle would need these basic requirements, there are already companies working on prototypes without steering wheels, and daring individuals testing out these systems by sitting in the backseat while the car drives itself. This has the California Department of Motor Vehicles worried about potential misuse (or downright stupidity), so it is likely putting these rules forth in an attempt to protect both the car owners and others on the road.

California’s rules would be the first of their kind aimed directly at the consumer. Michigan, Nevada, and Texas already allow for the testing of these self-driving cars on their roads but none have provided any guidance on how consumer use of these technologies should be governed.

Under the new rules, initial permits for self-driving cars would be for three years, and the manufacturers would need to prove that their autonomous cars are safe. Consumers can lease the vehicles, however safety information must be collected and submitted to the state on a regular basis.

In addition, the lessee would be required to go through training on the vehicle’s operation provided by the manufacturer, and have a special certification added to their driver’s license. The rules are quite strict, and therefore likely to catch the ire of the manufacturer.

One potential question could be what happens to vehicles that don’t meet the state’s safety standards after the three-year period. Would these consumers be forced to give up their cars? That isn’t immediately clear, and is sure to be a point of contention from the manufacturers as they review the rules.

Google is one of those companies doing so, and had no immediate comment.

At least one consumer group is standing behind the DMV’s proposal. “Google may be in overdrive in its rush to develop robot cars, but the DMV has admirably served as traffic cop and proposed reasonable limits to protect public safety,” Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project director John Simpson said in a statement.

Public hearings are set to take place over the next two months to discuss the proposals, and the DMV says it expects final regulations to go into effect later in 2016.

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