- The California Department of Motor Vehicles approved revised regulations that will allow the commercial use of light-duty autonomous delivery vehicles on public roads, even without a safety driver.
- The rule only applies to vehicles weighing less than 10,001 pounds, such as passenger cars, mid-size pickup trucks and cargo vans. All vehicles will have to go through a permitting process with the state and must comply with the same regulations in place for autonomous passenger vehicles.
- To test without a safety driver, an autonomous vehicle (AV) company will have to prove a connection with a remote operator and must meet certain Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. Permit applications will open on Jan. 17, 2020.
California has already been a testing hotbed for passenger vehicles, but companies are sure to take the state up on the use of delivery vehicles as well.
There is significant opportunity for autonomous delivery vehicles to partner with major retail companies or restaurants, or to make the last-mile delivery network more efficient. Already some companies like Postmates have been testing small autonomous robots that run on sidewalks.
Startup Nuro has also been testing a driverless delivery vehicle in Texas and Arizona, including a partnership with Domino's Pizza. (Uber has also reportedly been exploring a partnership with the company.)
Currently, 65 companies have permits to test AVs with a safety driver in California, and one, Waymo, can do driverless testing. In a statement, Waymo said it welcomed the new regulations.
"We look forward to exploring opportunities for Waymo to further test in the state with this new authority and for California to continue the process of authorizing the full spectrum of autonomous vehicle testing," the company said. As part of its taxi service in Arizona, Waymo has explored a shuttle partnership with companies like Walmart, which could eventually pave the way for delivery options.
However, the new vehicles could open up concerns about the labor impact of driverless cars. When California first proposed the AV delivery regulations last spring, a representative of the Sacramento chapter of the Teamsters Union said that with widespread deployment, "our drivers may be automated out of the workforce," according to a report in Government Technology. That fits with broader concerns about the impact of driverless trucks, and could create friction as California moves forward with more automation.