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California will allow certain driverless cars to carry passengers

Ride-sharing companies can now participate in two pilot programs to offer free rides in self-driving cars to the general public.

Ride-sharing companies that operate autonomous vehicles, like this Audi from Lyft, will now be able to transport passengers.

California regulators have announced two pilot programs that allow transportation companies operating autonomous vehicles to provide rides to members of the public. These programs apply to any companies that use self-driving vehicles that have been approved by the California Department of Motor Vehicles and California Public Utilities Commission.

According to a statement issued by the CPUC, the first pilot program "authorizes Transportation Charter-Party Carrier (TCP) permit-holders to use test autonomous vehicles to provide passenger service, as long as the TCP permit-holder also holds an 'Autonomous Vehicle Tester Program Manufacturer's Testing Permit' issued by the DMV." In these cases, a driver is required to be in the vehicle, and the company is not allowed to charge passengers for the ride.

The second program "allows TCP permit-holders that hold a 'DMV Manufacturer's Testing Permit - Driverless Vehicles' to operate autonomous vehicles without a driver in the vehicle," according to the CPUC statement, though the California DMV requires these vehicles be remotely monitored. Companies that wish to participate in this program are "not allowed to operate from or within airports; must limit the use of the vehicle to one chartering party at any given time (i.e., fare-splitting is not permitted); must ensure that the service can only be chartered by adults 18 years and older; and may not accept monetary compensation for the ride," according to the CPUC statement.

The CPUC is currently working on permanent regulations that allow autonomous passenger service, and a final proposal is expected to be ready in the first quarter of 2019.

This is indeed a big step forward toward public acceptance of autonomous vehicles. In March, an autonomous Uber test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, despite a driver being behind the wheel. Uber has since shuttered its driverless car operations in Arizona.

Key Uber competitor Lyft has been eager to advance its autonomous technology, and these pilot programs are great news on that front. "We appreciate the CPUC addressing this important topic and allowing the public to begin experiencing the benefits of autonomous vehicles," a Lyft spokesperson previously stated.