Remotely-Operated Cars May Hit California Roads in April

It’s seen as a way to speed up deployment of self-driving cars.

byStephen Edelstein|
Remotely-Operated Cars May Hit California Roads in April

Beginning in April, California may allow self-driving cars to roam its streets without human backup drivers onboard. But the cars wouldn't be going it alone. Instead, they would be remotely monitored by human beings miles away that can intervene if the onboard systems encounter trouble, according to Reuters. The California DMV is waiting for final approval from the state's legal compliance agency before moving ahead.

Using remote human minders—who could potentially control multiple self-driving cars at once—is seen as a way to get automated vehicles on the road in large numbers faster. The companies developing self-driving cars want to operate their vehicles without human drivers onboard, but that's proven to be a tough sell with regulators. The remote-operator policy is a compromise.

Waymo (the former Google self-driving car project) and startups Zoox, Phantom Auto, and Starsky Robotics are all working on the technology, according to Reuters. Remote operation is also one area of focus in Nissan's ongoing partnership with NASA. The automaker hopes to leverage the space agency's expertise in remotely operating probes far from Earth for terrestrial self-driving cars.

Having some form of human oversight could quell self-driving car skeptics, and using remote human backup drivers will allow companies to eliminate manual controls in their self-driving cars. But ensuring that people remotely monitoring self-driving cars stay alert could prove challenging, and the scheme will require robust communication infrastructure. If a self-driving car encounters a problem, there won't be much time to send commands back and forth between the car and a command center to avoid a crash.

The new rules allowing remote operations are expected to be approved on Feb. 26 by California's legal compliance agency. The DMV will then open a 30-day public notice period beginning March 1, during which companies can prepare applications for remote operation. The DMV may issue the first permits as early as April 2.