California's proposed self-driving laws eschew the driver's license

California's DMV is considering rules that would allow self-driving cars without steering wheels and pedals to be tested on public roads, and that would do away with driver's licenses in some cases.

Tony Avelar/AP/File
Google introduces its new self-driving prototype car at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. Cars with no steering wheel, no pedals, and nobody at all inside could be driving themselves on California roads by the end of the year.

Back in 2014, Google unveiled its first self-driving car, and boy, did it turn heads. The company's autonomous technology wasn't the only thing that got people's attention, it was also the car's design – specifically, its lack of a steering wheel or pedals for acceleration and braking.

Google's rationale was that, when self-driving software is perfected, humans won't need to take control of vehicles. In fact, when humans do so, they're far more likely to cause accidents than if autonomous vehicles are left to their own devices

The Department of Motor Vehicles in Google's home state of California wasn't amused. A couple of months later, it issued regulations requiring all self-driving vehicles to include steering wheels, brakes, and other components that allow human drivers to take over a vehicle at a moment's notice. 

Oh, what a difference a couple of years can make.

Google's self-driving car program has sped ahead, becoming a standalone company. Meanwhile, California's DMV is planning to make a regulatory U-turn. The agency is considering rules (PDF) that would undo previous guidelines and allow self-driving vehicles without steering wheels and pedals to be tested on public roads. 

In fact, the DMV's proposals go a step further, removing the requirement that autonomous cars have a human in the "driver's seat" at all.

However, under the new rules, companies would have to receive approval from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration before testing vehicles without conventional controls. (As you might recall, NHTSA determined in February 2016 that self-driving software could be considered a "driver" for legal purposes.)

Presumably, NHTSA and California's DMV would also consider how well a company's autonomous technology has performed in tests before granting approval. 

End of the driver's license?

But that's not all. The proposed regulatory changes also lay the groundwork for selling autonomous vehicles to the public. Those rules make use of the Society of Automotive Engineers' six-level system for categorizing self-driving vehicles, which runs from zero to five. 

If approved after the current 45-day comment period, the rules could cause major changes to licensing and insurance in the state, among other things.

For example, in section 228.28 of the DMV's proposal, the agency says that anyone operating an autonomous vehicle rated at SAE level three or below will need a driver's license appropriate for that vehicle. However, in vehicles rated at a level four or five, the manufacturer of the vehicle will be responsible for operation, "including compliance with all traffic laws".

How will car companies feel about that? Google, Mercedes-Benz, and Volvo are likely fine with the idea. As for other automakers and insurance firms, we'll have to wait and see.

Which excites you more: the thought of fully self-driving vehicles or the knowledge that one day, you'll no longer need to make regular trips to the DMV?

This story originally appeared on The Car Connection.

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