Self-driving car testing giving regulators headaches

Self-driving cars will have to wait to find out the rules of the road, California's DMV has admitted, with plans to have polices figured out by the end of the year scuppered by autonomous complexity. The Department of Motor Vehicles had been set a challenge by the US government to come up with a rule book for cars able to auto-navigate, but according to the agency there are still far too many questions left unanswered about how models will be deemed sufficiently safe to be let loose on the roads. The problem, the DMV points out, is that nobody has come up with a "driving test" for autonomous vehicles.

Whereas human drivers face written and on-the-road examinations to deem them suitably proficient to be granted a license, right now there's no equivalent for their robotic counterparts.

In fact, who will even take responsibility for operating that testing is still to be decided on. Currently, those developing the self-driving cars themselves – a list that includes Google, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, and several research institutes and universities, among others – are left to effectively self-certify, judging on their own set of rules whether the vehicles are ready to face the world.

However, the DMV may not let that continue. Back in July, it put out a call for third-party testing services to get involved, considering independent validation as has tentatively begun in European markets.

None of the four firms that responded are ready to begin testing in the US, however.

"It's a huge undertaking," Bernard Soriano – responsible for the DMV's regulatory processes – said of the delay. "There are all of these issues that need to be adequately answered."

To do that, the DMV will host a public safety standards workshop next month, at which any industry players or others with a vested interest in how the system shakes out are invited to have their say. Employing a third-party to manage the rules would be more cost effective and less demanding in terms of time and expertise, it's suggested.

While many agree that autonomous vehicles will improve road safety, there are also legitimate concerns as to how robotic drivers will co-exist on roads with their human counterparts. Although the technology is in many cases stable – though by no means perfect – the regulatory and legal framework is not, particularly aspects like insurance.

The UK recently announced that four cities would run autonomous schemes come 2015, in part to figure out how insurance policies might need to change to accommodate robo-drivers.

Even if California does settle on a rule book of its own, there's no telling whether it would be adopted federally. The state does have some track record on new transport technology legislation – its strict emissions standards, for instance, have been adopted by several other US states – but so far the government has proved cautious on establishing a bar for autonomous driving.