Driverless cars — with nobody behind the wheel — could be on California roads and highways by June 2018.
That doesn't mean you'll be able to buy a completely driverless car next year, or even hail a ride in one. The technology is still being developed. The driverless cars that may begin appearing next year will be test vehicles. They'll be allowed to pick up passengers, but only if the passengers don't have to pay.
The timeline was revealed Wednesday, when the state Department of Motor Vehicles proposed a new set of streamlined regulations along with a 15-day public comment period.
The regulations are expected to be set by the end of the year and approved by the DMV early next year. The department had not previously set a date, approximate or otherwise, for the deployment of fully autonomous cars. The go date could be sooner than June, depending on how fast the rules are approved, the DMV said.
California's existing rules about testing driverless cars, which require a human driver behind the wheel even when fully autonomous cars are being tested, have been criticized by industry leaders and some politicians as too strict. States with softer regulations, critics said, were attracting companies for driverless testing and putting California's reputation as the nation's technology innovation leader at risk.
Driverless cars already are operating in Arizona, Florida and several other states that have looser rules than California or no specific driverless regulations at all.
Consumer groups have said that those concerns are grossly exaggerated and that safety should come first.
DMV officials said they are trying to balance safety with technology development. Many safety experts believe that robot cars will prove far safer than human drivers.
The federal government will continue to set safety standards for automobiles, while the state's role is to make sure vehicles traveling on state highways conform to federal standards, the DMV said.
"Vehicle safety is the wheelhouse of the federal government," said Brian Soublet, head attorney at the DMV. "We continue to require that a manufacturer … certify that the vehicle will operate safely."
U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told automakers and tech companies last month that they could voluntarily submit driverless testing assessments to the federal government, but that they didn't have to. For now, existing federal safety standards for motor vehicles remain in place, regardless of whether a human is driving the car.
John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog said Wednesday that California is ceding too much authority to the Trump administration.
"The new California DMV proposal wrongly relies on the federal government, when there are absolutely no Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards applying specifically to autonomous vehicle technology," he said in a statement.
"Under the Trump administration approach, automakers can glance at the [federal] policy and say, 'That's nice,' and then do whatever they want as they use our roads as private laboratories and threaten highway safety," Simpson said.
California's new regulations would require that manufacturers testing driverless cars on public state roads certify that they're meeting federal standards and that any public paperwork shared with federal regulators on driverless testing also is passed to the DMV.
The rules would scale back existing regulations that require municipalities to approve vehicle testing. Under the new rules, testers would simply be required to inform cities, towns and counties when and where the vehicles will be tested.
Currently, 285 self-driving cars are being tested on California roadways by 42 permit holders, most of them auto manufacturers or technology companies, according to the DMV. State-approved human drivers are required to sit behind the wheel of those cars.
Congress is considering legislation that would loosen federal requirements on driverless-car testing.
The Senate version of the proposed law would not allow large driverless trucks. The new California regulations wouldn't either.
11:15 a.m.: This article was updated with details about the timeline, with comments from John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog and with information about U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao's September announcement.