The state of California has made it legal for car makers to test fully autonomous cars in select locations

California has passed a bill allowing the testing of driverless cars on public roads in select locations.

The bill, which was approved at the end of September, permits companies to test autonomous cars without a driver and minus a steering wheel, brake pedal and accelerator pedal.

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State authorities have included a series of conditions, the most notable being that the testing must take place “only at a privately owned business park designated by the authority, inclusive of public roads within the designated business park” and at speeds below 35mph only.

The car must have insurance – or equivalent - of at least $5million (£3.9m), as well as having been previously tested under controlled conditions prior to driving on permitted roads.

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The bill also dictates that those running autonomous cars on the scheme must report any occasion upon which the autonomous system is deactivated, although in cars without a steering wheel or pedals, it is unclear what would happen to the car in the event of this.

California’s bill is believed to be the first of its type globally. Other recently announced autonomous car testing schemes have not included the legal allowance of there being no driver behind the wheel and no driver inputs, either by pedals or a steering wheel.

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There is no official indication that such a scheme will come to the UK, but the government’s aim for the UK to be a hub of development for autonomous vehicles means that it may not be long, given the testing procedures already heading for UK roads, before truly driverless cars will test on our roads. 

Sahar Danesh, principal policy advisor for transport at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) said: “It is important to remember that driverless vehicles have huge potential to transform the UK’s transport network. In the long term, autonomous cars could improve road safety, reduce congestion and lower emissions.

“There are a series of trials taking place around the world where driverless cars have covered millions of miles and what we learn from this will prove crucial in ensuring the improved safety and technology of driverless cars.

“Public acceptance and trust are crucial, so these trials must get to grips with the best ways to win over everyone from car manufacturers to consumers to the benefits of driverless cars.

“The increased technology in our vehicles will also have a very beneficial effect for older people, allowing them to stay mobile for longer.”

Will Stewart, vice president of the IET, added: "The question of autonomous vehicles is not if but when. Just as is happening in California where they are reacting to changing global technology, the same is happening here in the UK with a number of trials already in progress. A future with driverless cars and trucks will bring huge benefits, including improved safety, where children will be able to plan and cycle on uncluttered streets.  Who wouldn’t look forward to a future where we all have robotic chauffeurs!”

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