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Autonomous-car firms in no rush to get unmanned vehicles onto California roads

California said earlier this year that it was preparing to allow autonomous-car companies to test their vehicles on the state’s roads without a safety driver behind the wheel.

That was before a self-driving Uber car with a safety driver knocked down and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, and also before an incident in California that saw a Tesla car crash while in semi-autonomous mode, resulting in the death of the driver.

Despite these recent tragedies, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is pressing ahead with its plan, and from April 2 gave the go-ahead for autonomous-car tests on public roads, without the need of a safety driver.

But only one of around 50 companies currently testing their cars in the state has so far applied for a permit that will allow it to send out an unmanned vehicle, according to Gizmodo. And the DMV hasn’t yet assessed the application.

In light of recent events, it’s little surprise that companies such as Waymo, Lyft, Ford, BMW, Nissan, and Honda — all of which are testing autonomous cars in California — are in no rush to get their applications in. Or it might be that they’re simply not ready to take such a step, regardless of the accidents involving Uber and Tesla.

California’s move to allow empty self-driving vehicles on its roads demonstrates the state’s determination to be at the forefront of autonomous-car development in the U.S. While many states now allow some form of testing on their public roads, Arizona is the only other state to allow autonomous-car tests without a safety driver, with Waymo recently posting a video showing passenger reactions as they took a ride in one of its cars in Phoenix.

In a document viewable online, California’s DMV sets out the requirements that need to be met for companies to secure one of the new permits. They include the need for a constant communication link between the vehicle and a “remote operator” that provides real-time data on the car’s location and status, as well as the submission of a “law enforcement interaction plan” detailing how the company will deal with first responders in the event of an incident involving one of its driverless vehicles.

If and when companies do get around to applying for a permit, they’ll have to pay $3,600 to process the application, which allows up to 10 driverless autonomous test vehicles to hit the streets.

The recent high-profile accidents involving Uber and Tesla are a serious setback for the autonomous-car industry as it seeks to win the hearts and minds of a skeptical public. Waymo, for one, is making efforts to explain the technology to the public.

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Trevor Mogg
Contributing Editor
Not so many moons ago, Trevor moved from one tea-loving island nation that drives on the left (Britain) to another (Japan)…
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