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California Approves Testing of Unmanned Self-Driving Cars

Often considered the heart of digital high-tech in the United States, California is the first state to legalize unmanned self-driving cars on its highways, according to Engadget. The bill — just signed on September 29, 2016 — isn’t quite as far-reaching as it sounds, but it’s stil a major milestone in the development of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

Over the past few years, several states have approved vehicles with some degree of autonomous technology to test on their highways. However, such approval applies only to vehicles with a driver behind the wheel. California is breaking new ground by granting permission for unmanned testing as the race to self-driving cars gains momentum.


More of a baby step toward public-street testing of unmanned AVs than a full-blown approval, the new regulation only allows testing in two small, well-defined areas and only by the Contra Costa Transportation Authority (CCTA). The bill does allow for cars involved in the testing to operate without a steering wheel, a brake pedal or an accelerator pedal.


A public agency formed to manage and plan transportation in Contra Costa County, California, the CCTA pursues a wide range of public transportation issues on behalf of county residents. Projects in which the organization is involved include improvements to streets and highways, promoting biking and walking infrastructures and programs to reduce traffic congestion.


Only the GoMentum Station located within the former Concord Naval Station and part of Contra Costa County is specifically mentioned in the bill. A ghost city of sorts, it’s the nation’s largest secure testing facility for AVs, as well as the current home for autonomous-technology testing for Honda/Acura. Uber’s autonomous-truck venture Otto just signed up to test its driverless technology there as well.

Apparently the second location will be an office park of the CCTA’s choosing, but the bill allows for testing to be done on any public streets running through it.


The bill contains a lot of mouse print regarding insurance and bonding requirements. It also demands that CCTA provide a detailed outline of the test, as well as a description of all human-controlled testing of the autonomous systems that will come into play during the unmanned testing.

Otherwise, the only stipulation is that the unmanned vehicle not exceed 35 miles per hour.

What it means to you: Despite this first step allowing the testing of unmanned AVs, totally self-driving cars are still years, if not decades, away. However, one of the bigger hurdles AVs face is government regulation. This signed bill may be an early indication that government regulation may not be as impenetrable a roadblock as originally thought.

Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps is an author specializing in automotive, financial and travel news. For nearly 35 years he has covered the automotive industry for newspapers, magazines and internet websites. His resume includes The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald, The Washington Times and numerous other daily newspapers through syndication. He edited Auto World magazine, and helped create and edit NOPI Street... Read More about Russ Heaps

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