California’s Driverless Car Program Gets Its First Application

California will allow fully driverless cars on public roads beginning Monday, and on Friday, the state received its first application for a permit.One applicant has asked for a permit to test driverless cars, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles told The Connected Car on Friday. The DMV has ten days, starting April 2, to tell the applicant if its application is complete, Armando Botello of the DMV Department of Public Affairs said in an emailed message. There is no timeline for approving a permit, Botello said. The DMV won’t say who applied until it decides if the application is acceptable.

Given that there are about 50 companies already testing autonomous cars with backup drivers in the state, one applicant may sound like a weak response. But only roughly one month after California approved the rules for those permits — a month when the autonomous car industry was rocked by a fatal crash in Arizona and a backlash against the technology — it’s not too surprising that companies are holding back.

At least two other states, Arizona and Texas, explicitly allow fully driverless cars. But as the most populous state and home to Silicon Valley, California is a major global center of self-driving car development and testing. It began allowing autonomous vehicles with backup drivers on board in 2014 and approved rules for driverless cars on February 26.

The fatal accident on March 18 in Tempe, Ariz., in which an Uber SUV killed a pedestrian crossing a four-lane road, has made backers of the technology more cautious, Gartner analyst Andy Castonguay said Friday.

“California is extremely important to this market,” Castonguay said. “There will be a significant number moving forward, but there’s a necessary moment of reflection before stepping out.”

Uber, Nvidia and others have halted public road testing while the Tempe incident is investigated, and Uber decided not to renew its driver-on-board testing license in California. Consumer groups have called for tighter regulations, and Uber reportedly was sued over the accident.

“It sent a bit of a shock wave,” Castonguay said.

Autonomous driving is so revolutionary that vendors, regulators and consumers all need to learn more about it, he said.

California is taking a relatively cautious approach with its rules for driverless cars. Companies and institutions can apply to introduce driverless cars for testing or for public use. Either way, they need to meet a long list of requirements.

Anyone rolling out driverless cars will have to certify that they meet “current industry standards” for cybersecurity, which is a moving target in a volatile and complicated area of technology.

The cars will also need a way to communicate with law enforcement, a potential challenge that was raised this week when police in San Francisco reportedly stopped a self-driving GM Cruise car that allegedly got too close to a pedestrian at an intersection before stopping. (The car was driving itself but had a backup driver, who reportedly was held responsible.)

In the case of an accident, driverless cars will need a way to transmit information about their owner or operator, as a driver normally would.

Operators will also need a way to remotely control cars in case of software failures and “disengagements” when the car can’t figure out how to respond to a driving situation. Even for the company with the best record, Waymo, that happened on average every 5,596 miles last year, according to DMV reports.

Almost every department of a self-driving car company might be pulled into understanding and meeting those requirements, so it may be too soon to expect a lot of applications, Gartner’s Castonguay said. “It will happen, but it will take time.”

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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