California is already the epicenter of self-driving car testing. But its roads are about to get a bit more crowded thanks to another type of autonomous vehicle. The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) now allows testing of light-duty autonomous delivery vehicles on the state’s public roads.
The new rule opens up testing for autonomous vehicles that weigh less than 10,000 pounds. So this includes only Class 1 and 2 vehicles such as passenger cars, mid-sized pickup trucks and cargo vans. Any vehicle that weighs more than 10,000 pounds (Class 3-8) is still not permitted, ruling out FedEx or UPS trucks and certainly any semi-trucks.
The California DMV will allow testing of autonomous vehicles both with and without a safety driver. For tests with a safety driver, the safety drivers need to complete a training program and maintain a clean driving record. There are additional requirements for tests without a safety driver, including the ability for the vehicles to communicate with and be controlled by a remote operator.
The DMV can start approving permits in 30 days or around January 17, 2020.
As of December 5, 2019, 65 companies had autonomous vehicle testing permits (with a driver) from the California DMV. But the new rule could open up the floodgates for companies to test autonomous vehicle delivery services in 2020 and beyond. For example, Nuro, a self-driving startup in Mountain View, Calif. that raised $940 million earlier this year from the Softbank Vision Fund, is already trialing its autonomous vehicles in Arizona and Texas. It recently announced a partnership with Walmart to test autonomous grocery delivery in Houston.
Amazon is also a company to watch here. Amazon itself isn’t permitted to test autonomous vehicles in California, but Amazon-backed Aurora, a Silicon Valley-based self-driving startup, is. Amazon participated in Aurora’s $530 million Series B in February 2019 and is certainly hoping autonomous vehicles could help improve it delivery services.
Waymo is the only company permitted by the California DMV to test autonomous vehicles without a safety driver. Waymo is the clear frontrunner in the autonomous passenger vehicle space, and it is developing autonomous trucks. When the California DMV released its disengagement reports earlier this year, Waymo had the best-performing self-driving cars in California with one disengagement every 11,017 miles. That performance marks a 50 percent reduction in the rate and a 96 percent increase in the average miles traveled between disengagements compared to the 2017 numbers.
Waymo recently started to operate its self-driving taxi service near Phoenix, Arizona, called Waymo One, without human safety drivers. And it acquired Latent Logic, a UK start-up that uses imitation learning to simulate models of human behavior on the road. The acquisition marks the launch of Waymo’s first European engineering hub, which will be located in Oxford.