Audi is officially the first automaker to get a permit from the state of California to test self-driving cars on public roads.
At the same time, the California Department of Motor Vehicles has made official its new regulations regarding how manufacturers can test those so-called autonomous vehicles.
The new regulations, the state's first, require that manufacturers register autonomous vehicles, insure or bond them for $5 million each, complete testing programs, use qualified drivers employed by the manufacturing company and report any accidents with test vehicles to the DMV.
"Autonomous vehicles are the future of transportation," said DMV Director Jean Shiomoto. "Testing on public roads is one step to developing this technology, and the DMV is excited in facilitating the advancement of autonomous vehicles in California."
New state regulations took effect Tuesday specifically allowing such testing for the first time in California, per a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2012.
Analyst Thilo Koslowski, automotive practice leader at the research firm Gartner, called it a win for the state.
"It's a great opportunity for California," he said. "A lot of the technologies and companies involved in self-driving vehicles are based here. It makes a lot of sense to see the state officially enabling the testing of these vehicles."
Bragging rights went to first-in-line Audi.
"Audi is a driving force behind the research taking automated driving from science fiction to pre-production readiness," Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America, said in a statement. "Obtaining the first permit issued by the state of California shows that we intend to remain the leader in this vital technology frontier."
But Audi is not the only car company testing the self-driving autos. Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, Ford and General Motors are experimenting with autonomous technology, and some expect to have such vehicles on the road by 2020.
Indeed, GM plans to start selling cars that can drive partially in an auto-pilot mode — and can exchange speed and safety data with similarly equipped vehicles — by 2017.
The first features, part of a package to be called "Super Cruise," are expected to show up in high-end 2017 Cadillac vehicles, the company said, but over time will move into GM's other brands.
Mercedes-Benz, Acura and Subaru have started to put self-piloting functions in vehicles already on the U.S. market, using similar technology.
The Mercedes and Acura vehicles will automatically keep a car in a lane for a short period of time but will warn the driver to take control of the steering wheel after five to 10 seconds.
The vehicles also have sensors that allow their cruise-control systems to slow the car down and then speed it up to adjust to traffic conditions and maintain a safe distance behind a vehicle in front.
By 2025, as many as 230,000 new autonomous vehicles a year could hit the roads around the world, according to a study released by IHS Automotive. That number could swell to 11.8 million a decade later, the study said.
Until Tuesday, there were no laws on the California books regarding autonomous vehicles, either allowing or prohibiting their testing.
California joins Michigan, Florida and Nevada in permitting the testing.
Analyst Koslowski, who had his first autonomous vehicle experience in a Google test car two years ago, said the safety implications are enormous. On that test drive, the autonomous vehicle "saw" a potential accident situation far sooner than the car's occupants did and made a casual, safe adjustment.
"Machines are already better than we are at sensing what's going on around us," he said. "Any flavor of a self-driving car will allow for a safer driver experience."
Like an eager 16-year-old with a new license, Audi isn't wasting any time putting its new permit to use. The automaker already has a specially equipped A7 autonomous car in the San Francisco area that it said it will begin testing immediately.
Times staff writer Jerry Hirsch contributed to this report.