California to approve autonomous delivery vehicles — with or without a safety driver

The California Department of Motor Vehicles will permit applications for light-duty autonomous delivery vehicles starting January 2020, the agency announced this week.

The state said it will grant permits for testing with or without a safety driver in front of the wheel.

“The adoption of these regulations means Californians soon could receive deliveries from an autonomous vehicle provided the company fulfills the requirements,” DMV Director Steve Gordon said in a statement. “As always, public safety is our primary focus.”

Safety drivers need to complete a training program and maintain a clean driving record. 

A vehicle without a safety driver must adhere to more stringent requirements, including adding “a communication link between the vehicle and a remote operator and the ability to display or transfer vehicle owner or operator information in the event of a collision,” the DMV said.

Currently, 65 companies have permits to test autonomous vehicles with a safety driver on California public roadways. Only one company, Waymo, has a permit for driverless testing. 

Up until this point, however, DMV regulations did not allow for the testing and commercial use of autonomous light-duty delivery vehicles on public roadways. 

The new regulations continue to exclude autonomous vehicles weighing more than 10,001 pounds, meaning self-driving trucking startups will not qualify.

Delivery vans, midsize pickup trucks and passenger cars will qualify, and once the rules take effect, e-retailers such as Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) and Walmart (NYSE: WMT) are expected to seize the opportunity to ramp up pilot projects they have undertaken with autonomous technology partners.

Companies that want to charge for delivery will have to apply for an additional commercial use permit.