Google announced its new autonomous vehicle Wednesday, and it is truly driverless. No steering wheel, no pedals, similar to the Induct autonomous vehicle available for sale since January. That one was French, though, so maybe it doesn’t count.
Absent from the media coverage is whether the car is legal to operate in California. If it were a standard passenger vehicle, it would fall under the recently released California DMV regulations on automated vehicle testing. These new rules, which go into effect in September, require a licensed driver with the ability to take over control of the vehicle at any time. Without a steering wheel, this is obviously impossible, and using the presumably unlicensed pre-teens and the blind from Google’s promotional video would also violate these rules.
But is the new Google car a standard vehicle? The California regulations suggest so. §227.02(b) of the proposed rules define autonomous vehicle as any vehicle equipped with autonomous technology capable of operating or driving the vehicle. And California’s definition of motor vehicle seems to include the new electric, lightweight Google car, so the DMV regulations would apply.
Former Deputy Administrator of NHTSA and current Google employee Ron Medford was interviewed at re/code along with Chris Urmson, where they were asked about legal requirements. Here’s the exchange:
Alexis Madrigal: What kinds of regulatory changes do you need to be able to operate these vehicles without controls?
Ron Medford: California is currently writing regulations. Just this past week they finished the testing regulations for autonomous vehicles on the state’s roads and they are planning to write the regulations by the end of this year for operations, so there are only a few states that have a regulatory framework at all for these or have attempted to legislate in that area. There are no Federal regulations or rules right now, so we are working primarily here in California, where we are headquartered and we’re testing and there’s a framework for doing that work
Madrigal: But don’t the current regulations require that a “natural person” be in the vehicle and able to take control?
Medford: The regulations that have been passed so far have been for testing the vehicles and they do require that we have a safety driver in the vehicle during that period and for these vehicles we will install manual controls for test drivers to take over when they are testing, for example, in the state of California.
Ron: And that will be covered under the operational reg.
Urmson is referring to VC Section 38750 which went into effect January 2013. This law did explicitly mention vehicle’s without a driver:
…if the application seeks approval for autonomous vehicles capable of operating without the presence of a driver inside the vehicle, the department may impose additional requirements it deems necessary to ensure the safe operation of those vehicles, and may require the presence of a driver in the driver’s seat of the vehicle if it determines, based on its review pursuant to paragraph (1), that such a requirement is necessary to ensure the safe operation of those vehicles on public roads.
However, last week’s regulations are meant to clarify and interpret VC 38750 (and indeed they contradict it in several areas), and we believe the new regulations supersede the old. Medford seems to imply that the forthcoming operational regulations will address vehicles without drivers. For now, however, the new Google car seems restricted to private property.
As for the 25 mile per hour speed limit on the new vehicles, this was probably done to qualify the vehicles as low-speed vehicles under federal definitions. These vehicles have a top speed of between 20 and 25 miles per hour—slightly faster than golf carts, but slower than passenger vehicles. The Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards and Regulations require low-speed vehicle to have various lights and seat belts, but exempt them from steering wheel and pedal control requirements of conventional vehicles. California sometimes refers to these as neighborhood electric vehicles or NEVs. They are still required to have licensed drivers, and additionally may not travel on roads with speed limits greater than 35 mph except to cross them. For a short history of low-speed vehicle legislation, see NHTSA’s summary.
In summary, the new Google cars are probably legal to drive on public roads today based on VC 38750 if Google has gotten approval from California DMV. They will become illegal when the new testing regulations go into effect in September. They may become legal again when the operational regulations are published and go into effect, depending on what they say. They are almost certainly not legal as shown in the Google video with unlicensed drivers at the wheel.
We’re not lawyers, though. So please, someone who has passed the bar exam, figure this out for us.