TECH: Unmanned Self-Driving Cars Coming to California

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Our cars have self-driving features like autonomous emergency braking and lane keep assist, but no cars are currently allowed to operate without a driver in the US. Regulations require a driver, steering wheel, and foot pedals so a human can take over should anything go wrong. That’s about to change in California.

Four years after they first approved trials of autonomous cars on public streets, the state is approving new legislation that would allow testing without a human at the wheel as an emergency backup. Governor Jerry Brown signed off on the bill, which has very specific and limited parameters.

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You won’t see cars zipping past without drivers on California highways just yet. The bill applies to a pilot project run by the Contra Costa Transportation Authority. It allows vehicles to operate only within the business park at speeds up to 35 mph.

The business park has public roads so these vehicles will be mixing in with regular traffic, but within a limited area and only at low speeds. The plan calls for shuttles to move employees around the site. The shuttles will be the same ones that are currently moving people around public streets in Helsinki, Finland.

It will also include an area called GoMentum Station. This is the abandoned Concord Naval Weapons Station where Honda has been testing its self-driving technologies. Uber’s self-driving trucking company, Otto, is testing at the same site and other companies like Google and Apple are looking to join the party.

Google has long contended that having a human backup at the wheel defeated the whole purpose of self-driving cars. The idea that the cars will do it better with fewer mistakes than humans should mean that letting a human intervene is a bad thing and likely to cause more problems.

The challenge is in overcoming the perception that self-driving cars aren’t yet ready for the public and that they’re currently making mistakes that a human drive could avoid. The driver of a Tesla Model S operating in AutoPilot mode was killed when his car drove into a truck. Several accidents have also been reported while the system was in use.

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Whether the system was at fault or the driver for using the technology improperly is still being debated, but it doesn’t do anything to ease fears that this technology is moving too fast. The idea of having cars that drive themselves perfectly is appealing, but the thought they might make a mistake and hurt someone is frightening.

It took four years for California to let driverless cars on its roads. It’s the first of what will be many small steps towards fully autonomous cars having free rein on our highways.