A Waymo self-driving vehicle. Until now, however, state regulators have required those companies to have someone sitting in the driver's seat to take control of the auto if needed. Those critics have said states with softer regulations were attracting companies for driverless testing and putting California's reputation as the nation's technology innovation leader at risk.
On road safety, NHTSA has responsibility for regulating safety in the design and performance of vehicles, while states regulate drivers and vehicle operations. Waymo, the self-driving vehicle unit of Google parent company Alphabet Inc, along with Ford, Tesla, Apple, General Motors and others filed comments in April with California suggesting changes. Some of those vehicles already are being testing on city streets.
A 15-day public comment period will follow Wednesday's release of the new draft rules.
"The department looks forward to seeing those companies and additional companies advance the technology under these new regulations", said DMV Director Jean Shiomoto.
That's not to say autonomous cars will become commonplace next year. The regulations are expected to be set by the end of the year and approved by the DMV early next year.
The revised regulations are the result of feedback from automakers, consumer advocates, local governments and insurance companies, the DMV said in a statement. That potentially opens the door to a distant operations center where safety drivers monitor autonomous vehicles and can take over from their keyboard, leaving all the seats in the auto itself free for passengers.
The proposed rules would also allow companies to introduce self-driving vehicles that can be used by the general public. Manufacturers would still need to receive approval or a waiver for exemption from the federal government before operating a vehicle on public roads without a human driver or conventional controls like a steering wheel or pedals.
The state clarifies how manufacturers must notify local authorities before testing and cedes development and enforcement of safety standards to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "It will take a much longer time - if it ever happens - for AVs to substantially displace traditional motor vehicles and predominate in the US motor vehicle fleet".