If you ask automakers and tech companies why they’re exploring autonomous vehicles, the number one answer is probably “safety.” The theory is it’s safer, in the long run, if you take driving out of human hands. Ironically, safety is the exact reason why the California Department of Motor Vehicles is proposing new rules that could hobble the development of autonomous cars and even ban “driverless” ones outright.

According to Automotive News, the proposed restrictions would require third-party testing and certification for autonomous vehicles; that a licensed driver with a special certification be inside at all times; that carmakers and tech companies get a three-year operating permit while they submit reports to the state on safety; and that all autonomous cars would need a steering wheel and pedals to test on public roads.

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In other words, the California hotbed of autonomous car testing and eventual deployment could get wrapped up in a lot more red tape. Via a statement:

“The primary focus of the deployment regulations is the safety of autonomous vehicles and the safety of the public who will share the road with these vehicles,” said DMV Director Jean Shiomoto. “We want to get public input on these draft regulations before we initiate the formal regulatory rule making process.”

DMV officials said in a statement that the reason for these proposed rules is to help transition automakers and tech companies away from testing and toward eventual production and deployment.

While that testing is already heavily regulated by the DMV, companies fear the new restrictions could delay or torpedo the development of entirely driverless cars, ones with no humans inside or no traditional controls. Or it could, at least, force testing outside of California.

Not surprisingly, pushback came from Google, which just today was reported to be setting up its autonomous car division as a standalone company to possibly compete with Uber and Lyft next year. Here’s what Google spokesman Johnny Luu told Silicon Beat:

“In developing vehicles that can take anyone from A to B at the push of a button, we’re hoping to transform mobility for millions of people, whether by reducing the 94 percent of accidents caused by human error or bringing everyday destinations within reach of those who might otherwise be excluded by their inability to drive a car. Safety is our highest priority and primary motivator as we do this. We’re gravely disappointed that California is already writing a ceiling on the potential for fully self-driving cars to help all of us who live here.”

The rules aren’t final yet and DMV officials are seeking public input—we can expect companies like Google, as well as established automakers that test in California like Ford and Tesla, to fight this one hard.

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One way or another, these rules are going to be a big deal in the other 49 states as well. As the AP notes, with California being the largest auto market in the U.S., as well as home to most tech companies, these rules could very well set the precedent for what the rest of the country does.


Contact the author at patrick@jalopnik.com.