California Takes the Leap on Driverless CAVs 

California has become the second state in the nation to permit connected and automated vehicles (CAVs) to operate on public roads without a safety driver. With the recent announcement that Waymo has obtained approval to test driverless CAVs in a handful of Northern California communities, the state joins Arizona on the leading edge of the driverless vehicle revolution. Similar to the Arizona experiment, which I wrote about recently, California has positioned itself to play a key role in shaping the speed and direction of growth in the CAV industry.

California’s regulatory apparatus, while not without its critics, will provide an interesting contrast to the relatively lax system enacted by Arizona. The remainder of this post will explore the key differences between these two approaches to governance of CAVs.

Arizona requires merely that CAV operators submit written confirmation to the State that each vehicle complies with all relevant federal law, that it is capable of reaching a “minimal risk condition” when necessary, and that it be capable of complying with traffic and safety laws. California, by contrast, has a handful of more specific requirements. In addition to the need to comply with federal law, California requires that driverless CAV operators:

  • Notify local authorities in communities where testing will take place
  • Submit a law enforcement interaction plan
  • Certify that the vehicles meet the autonomous vehicle Level 4 or 5 definition of the Society for Automotive Engineers
  • Maintain a communication link between the vehicle and a remote operator
  • Inform the DMV of the intended operational design domain
  • Submit an annual disengagement report to the DMV
  • Submit collision reports to the DMV within 10 days of a crash

In addition to these requirements for driverless vehicle testing, California has a further set of requirements before driverless CAVs can be certified for public use. This supplemental set of requirements generally revolves around data recording and security against cyber-attacks.

Critics have argued that even California’s approach to CAVs is not safety conscious enough. Consumer Watchdog, a California public interest group, has raised an alarm that the state is merely taking Waymo’s word that it has met requirements “without any real verification.” The organization has also suggested that California’s regulations are not substantively strict enough, arguing that they are turning people “into human guinea pigs for testing [Waymo’s] robot cars.” Proponents though, argue that the safety concerns are overblown in light of the potential for vast improvements relative to error-prone human drivers.

While the debate over how much regulation is proper persists, it is notable how quickly California seems to be following in the footsteps of Arizona in the rollout of CAVs. One key argument in favor of Arizona’s light touch regulation is that it has positioned the state to take the lead in development of this new technology. California’s oversight, while not enough for some, is undoubtedly more rigorous than that of its neighbor to the east. Arizona’s approach does appear to have given the state a short head start in the CAV race. California’s progress, though, indicates that modest increases in state oversight may not present a substantial barrier to the adoption of this new technology.