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Autonomous cars without human ‘backup drivers’ are coming to California

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Experts say this is actually safer than having a person behind the wheel

Driverless cars, such as this model by Waymo, could revolutionize transportation for Americans with disabilities
Waymo’s Chrysler Pacifica minivans will be allowed to drive around California cities without a human driver starting in April
Waymo

California is taking an important first step towards technology that will make its streets safer. Starting April 2, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles will allow autonomous vehicles to operate without a human “driver” as backup.

About 50 companies have licenses to operate driverless cars in the state but until now the DMV has required that a human be in the front seat of the vehicle and prepared to take the wheel at any time. Now companies can operate the cars remotely, or—and this is the exciting part—start using vehicles that don’t have steering wheels at all.

Even though a human won’t be physically in the car, a human operator still needs to monitor the car remotely and be able to stop or control the vehicle, according to Recode. And the operator must also be able to communicate with the passengers in case of an emergency.

Advocates were excited about the prospect of removing human drivers from vehicles completely, as many groups like the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets believe fully autonomous vehicles are an important pathway to safer streets. These groups claim the potential for human intervention—like Tesla’s Autopilot feature—makes driverless cars more dangerous than exclusively human-driven ones.

Last year, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), created a Blueprint for Autonomous Urbanism which encourages cities to use fully autonomous vehicles that travel no faster than 25 mph as a tool for making streets safer and more accessible.

A street filled with autonomous technology from NACTO’s Blueprint for Autonomous Vehicles
NACTO

After years of decline, traffic deaths have been on the rise in the U.S., even as cars have added more safety technology. The uptick in deaths has largely been attributed to speed. Human drivers killed about 40,100 Americans in 2017, and children in the U.S. die from traffic deaths at about twice the rate of other wealthy nations.

Although Uber’s autonomous vehicle fleet has been involved in some high-profile crashes, and a dramatic exodus from California over a disagreement with the DMV, for the most part, navigating city streets has been uneventful for driverless operators in the state. Alphabet’s Waymo has logged the most miles and only been involved in a handful of crashes, virtually all of which were the fault of other human drivers. California currently has the most licensed AV operators, so the regulation paves the way for other states to roll out their own similar rules, or advocate for a comprehensive federal policy.

Californians may also soon be able to summon rides from these autonomous fleets. Waymo has received permits in Arizona to operate a ride-hailing service without human drivers, according to the state’s department of transportation. A spokesperson from Waymo did not necessarily confirm the move but told Bloomberg Technology, “We’re taking all the steps necessary to launch our commercial service this year.”