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California Approves the Testing of Commercial Autonomous Vehicles on Public Roads

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【Summary】California’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is issuing a new permit that allows self-driving commercial vehicles, including smaller trucks, to test on public roads for the first time.

Eric Walz    Dec 18, 2019 3:45 PM PT
California Approves the Testing of Commercial Autonomous Vehicles on Public Roads
In 2018, Ford Motor Co launched an autonomous pizza delivery pilot with Domino's in Florida.

One day your online grocery order or pizza may be delivered by a self-driving delivery vehicle operated by one of the many Silicon Valley-based companies that are developing the technology.

However, with dozens of startups in California developing autonomous trucks and other smaller delivery vehicles, many companies feel that state regulations targeting the deployment autonomous vehicles on public roads have been hampered their progress. 

Now California's Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is issuing a new permit that allows self-driving commercial vehicles, including smaller trucks, to test on public roads for the first time.

California's DMV announced today that with an approved permit from the Department of Motor Vehicles companies can deploy their autonomous delivery vehicles for more advanced testing.

Under revised regulations approved on Monday by the Office of Administrative Law, companies with a DMV permit can operate autonomous delivery vehicles weighing less than 10,001 pounds. The DMV will begin approving new applications in 30 days. 

According to the DMV, qualifying vehicles include autonomous passenger cars, mid-sized pickup trucks and cargo vans carrying goods such as pizza, groceries or parcels.

Depending on the permit, companies can test their autonomous delivery service with or without a human safety driver. However, companies must apply for a commercial "deployment permit" with the DMV to charge customers a delivery fee.

Any company seeking to deploy autonomous delivery vehicles for testing will be required to comply with the same application requirements currently in place for testing and deployment of autonomous passenger vehicles. 

"The adoption of these regulations means Californians soon could receive deliveries from an autonomous vehicle provided the company fulfills the requirements," DMV Director Steve Gordon said. "As always, public safety is our primary focus."

Previously, DMV regulations did not allow for the testing and commercial use of autonomous light-duty delivery vehicles on public roadways, only passenger vehicles. The DMV's regulations still exclude autonomous vehicles weighing more than 10,001 pounds, which includes autonomous semi-trucks operating on the highway.

Autonomous vehicles for commercial applications will be closely regulated in California

The driverless vehicles will not be allowed to roam freely on California roads without some additional protocols in place.

Each company seeking a permit must certify that its test vehicles have been tested under controlled conditions that simulate the environment where the vehicles are designed to operate. 

In addition, test drivers must be in the driver's seat at all times during testing to oversee the vehicle's operation. These safety drivers must be capable of taking control of the vehicle if needed. 

Companies must also provide a training program for test drivers and certify that each test driver has successfully completed the training and has a clean driving record with no recent accidents or moving violations.

Permit holders must also submit an annual disengagement report and submit collision reports to the DMV within 10 days. The disengagement report shows each time a self-driving vehicle taken over by a human safety driver, as well as the reason for disengaging the vehicle's self-driving system.

In addition, companies must provide written notification to local authorities, where vehicles will be tested. Companies will also need to provide an explanation of how they will monitor the test vehicles. 

California's DMV also requires an active communication link between the vehicle and remote operator, as well as a process to notify law enforcement directly from the vehicle, in case of emergency. Companies will also need to submit a copy of a law enforcement interaction plan.

As with all registered vehicles in California, all vehicles must comply with all Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) or provide evidence of an exemption from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

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Grocery delivery startup AutoX, with an office in Silicon Valley, is looking to launch an autonomous grocery delivery service in California.

Companies wishing to test their vehicles must certify that the vehicle is capable of operating without the presence of a driver and meets the autonomous technology description of a Level 4 or Level 5 under the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) definitions. 

According to the SAE, Level-4 autonomous vehicles are considered highly-automated, where in most cases, the vehicle can operate without human supervision in the areas where it operates. Level-5 vehicles are considered fully-automated and require no human supervision at all.

If the vehicle does not require a driver, the manufacturer must also certify to other requirements, including a communication link between the vehicle and a remote operator and the ability to display or transfer vehicle owner or operator information in the event of a collision.

Companies must also protect their vehicle from cyber attacks, to prevent any unauthorized intrusions or false vehicle control commands.

In developing and adopting this rulemaking, the DMV followed the same approach used for past AV regulations packages, including a public workshop and hearing.

Currently, 65 companies have valid permits to test autonomous vehicles on public roads using a safety driver. Companies with the permit include Tesla, Ford Motor Co, BMW, Waymo, Nvidia, Volkswagen and General Motors. So far Waymo is the only company that has a permit for driverless testing, meaning there is no driver behind the wheel. 

Waymo, which spun out of Google's self-driving car program, has been testing self-driving vehicles since 2009 and is considered the industry leader with millions of miles of testing under its belt.

The DMV's new permit gives automaker and tech companies working on autonomous commercial vehicles an opportunity to gain some ground on Waymo and improve the technology in the real world—on public roads.

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