Vehicles without steering wheels and pedals will soon be on California’s roads, if only in very specific areas, thanks to Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature on A.B. 1592, sponsored by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord.

The bill allows a public agency, the Contra Costa Transportation Authority, to launch a pilot program whereby so-called “people movers” – large, multipassenger electric vehicles – will operate fully autonomously in geographically restricted areas. These vehicles, by the terms of the law, may travel no more than 35 mph and must carry a hefty $5 million in insurance coverage.

On its face, the bill’s terms do not redefine the bourgeoning self-driving vehicle industry. It is much too narrow to accomplish something like that. But it does mark an important signal that California is capable of changing regulatory course.

The California Department of Motor Vehicles has been developing regulations that are hostile to testing and developing self-driving vehicles that lack driver input devices like steering wheels and pedals. Aware of DMV’s activity in this sphere, Bonilla notes in a press release after the bill’s signing that “as transportation technologies evolve, so must our laws and regulations.”

Over the coming years, state laws across the country will have to be updated to accommodate self-driving vehicles. Standards for licensure, registration and insurance all will need to be reevaluated, as the very nature of mobility changes. That process will require courage to recognize that the technology will largely dictate the legislative and regulatory needs of the moment – and that that technology might change more quickly than the laws can.

In that sense, though this bill is worthy of celebration, it shouldn’t have been necessary. The Legislature can’t predict the future and legislating prophylactically is as inefficient as it is destructive. Trying to contemplate the legislative and regulatory needs of one potential future might delay or destroy another, even better one.

The Contra Costa County pilot program is a great step. But one can’t help but wonder how much further along self-driving technology development would be in California if innovators didn’t have to deal with the very regulatory environment that made this bill necessary.


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