California’s Department of Motor Vehicles is asking state residents for their thoughts on proposed regulations for driverless cars.

DMV officials last Wednesday asked the public to critique proposed regulations that would allow self-driving cars without a steering wheel or pedals on public roads.

While self-driving cars are still a prototype, developers argue that under an aggressive timeline, cars could be ready for market in less than two years.

However, state and Federal regulations haven’t caught up with the new technology.

While California’s proposed regulations would only technically govern the state, the driverless car makers, enthusiasts, and other state regulations are keeping an eye on the discussion because California is such a large consumer of cars, as well as a leader in emerging technology.

The proposed regulations were technically due on Jan. 1, 2015, but were overdue because the technology is so new and regulators were unsure as to how to demonstrate that the cars are safe for public use.

Initially, the proposed regulations required a licensed driver–which angered self-driving car manufacturers who are hoping for cars without steering wheels or pedals.

In last week’s proposed regulations, the licensed driver requirement was removed. The state is now open to cars that could drive without a human inside, so long as Federal and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regulators agree that the make and model of the car was safe for public use.

At Wednesday’s public hearing self-driving car manufacturers spoke first. The car makers highlighted their proposal, which includes a 15-point safety assessment. The safety assessment is voluntary and requests that automakers document how their car detects and avoids obstacles such as objects and pedestrians, as well what its backup systems will do should the software fail while the car is in use.

However, the new regulations require that autonomous vehicle manufacturers must provide a copy of their 15-point safety assessment letter for NHTSA to the state agency.

The automakers argue that the assessment would go from voluntary to mandatory under California’s proposed regulations and the automakers would prefer to self-certify their cars are safe for use with minimal regulatory oversight–mimicking the current Federal model for traditional cars.

“Mandating compliance is completely counter to NHTSA’s objective,” David Strickland, counsel and spokesman for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, an advocacy group established by Ford, Google, and others, told the Los Angeles Times.

Strickland also added that it would also create “unnecessary regulatory confusion.”

However, the assessment being voluntary is exactly what consumer rights activists are concerned about. A representative of the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog expressed concerns that California’s regulations fell short because automakers were allowed to self-certify, rather than requiring outside certification.

Carmen Balber, executive director of Santa Monica’s Consumer Watchdog, explained during her testimony at Wednesday’s meeting that the current regulations didn’t adequately address safety by using NHTSA’s 15-point safety assessment plan, saying it had “no substance.”

“I think the key here is that they are completely unenforceable,” Balber said.

Within the next few months, the DMV expects to start its formal rule-making process, which will include a 45-day public comment period and a public hearing process.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk SLG's Assistant Copy & Production Editor, covering Cybersecurity, Education, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs