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Driverless cars can operate in California as early as April

The California DMV passed regulations that allow for the public testing and deployment of autonomous cars without drivers.

General Motors’ next generation of self-driving cars General Motors

Driverless cars will begin operating on California roads as early as April under regulations that were passed today by the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles.

This is the first time companies will be able to operate autonomous vehicles in California without a safety driver behind the wheel.

But those cars won’t be operating completely unmanned — at least for now. Under these regulations, driverless cars being tested on public roads must have a remote operator monitoring the car, ready to take over as needed. That remote operator — who will be overseeing the car from a location outside of the car — must also be able to communicate with law enforcement as well as the passengers in the event of an accident.

When the companies are ready to deploy the cars commercially, the remote operator is no longer required to take over the car, just facilitate communication while it monitors the status of the vehicle.

It’s a requirement that many industry experts agree could help accelerate the proliferation of self-driving cars and ensure cars are able to operate in all situations — especially the unsolved edge cases. It also suggests the addition of jobs in a new business designed to replace drivers.

That’s good news for companies like Phantom Auto, which aims to be the remote safety driver for autonomous cars. In the short term, Phantom Auto is trying to replace the human safety driver who, today, takes over control of an autonomous car when the system fails, or in situations when the driver expects it to fail.

In the long term, Phantom Auto will act more like air traffic control but for cars — monitoring the vehicle and helping passengers as needed. As self-driving technology progresses, the hope is that remote operators will only have to take over a car to bring it to a safe stop in the case of an accident or other rare cases.

At the moment, the company’s operators can each monitor five cars at once. As self-driving cars get better, the hope is operators will only have to take over in extreme situations and that those extreme situations will become rarer. That, in turn, makes it easier to scale Phantom Auto’s business — part of which will be to provide this remote operator service for other self-driving companies.

Some of the bigger players like Alphabet’s Waymo, General Motors and Uber have already been testing their own remote customer support centers.

Waymo, for its part, started testing cars without safety drivers in a small part of Phoenix, Ariz., in early November 2017.

General Motors, which is also testing self-driving cars in California, is gearing up to launch a driverless service and has begun building out its own remote-operating feature called “expert mode.”

The company wouldn’t give much more detail about its tele-operation system, but it is coming up against a looming deadline. GM recently petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to allow the company to deploy a fleet of vehicles without steering wheels or pedals by 2019.

The company has been publicly ambitious about its goal of launching a fleet of vehicles without safety drivers by next year. It’s a lofty goal, particularly in the places GM’s self-driving arm Cruise is testing its cars. The company has primarily operated its fleet of vehicles on the busy city streets of San Francisco.

That’s in large part because of the economic opportunity urban autonomous driving offers, as well as the technological benefits of learning to navigate complex environments.

To meet its deadline, GM will have to begin testing its driverless cars on public roads sooner rather than later.

Under these new regulations, California’s DMV can begin doling out permits for completely driverless cars as early as April. Neither GM nor Waymo responded to questions about how soon it expects to apply for a permit under the DMV’s new rules.

Today, 50 companies have received permits to test self-driving vehicles with a safety driver behind the wheel.

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