Steering wheel is optional with California’s self-driving pilot program

Enlarge / Two of these EasyMile driverless people movers will be allowed to drive on public roads in a privately owned business park in Contra Costa, California. (credit: EasyMile)

The testing of autonomous vehicles took a leap forward in California on Thursday, when Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that allows for the testing of self-driving vehicles that lack a driver's seat, steering wheel, or pedals. Before anyone starts freaking out too much, the addition to California's Vehicle Code only applies to a handful of roads in and around a privately owned business park in Contra Costa, and the vehicles must travel at speeds below 35mph.

The new bill is an important step for the state, however. California was one of the first states in the nation to enact legislation that allowed the testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads with the proviso that all such vehicles have a driver's seat and controls. While this hasn't been too much of a handicap for Google, Delphi, and others, it has meant that vehicles like Local Motors' driverless shuttle have been banned from testing their vehicles in California.

Many other states have been waiting on the federal government before crafting their own autonomous driving regulations, and the feds took a first step last month with the release of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Federal Automated Vehicles Policy. That policy guidance includes a section on state regulations. There is a strong desire at the federal level, as well as with stakeholders in the industry, for state guidelines to be harmonized and not in conflict with one another, lest we end up with a patchwork system where cars can legally drive themselves through one state and then have to hand over control to a human driver after crossing a state line.

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