Driverless cars are legal in California, so what comes next?

The future of driverless cars

The California DMV isn't done creating regulations for autonomous vehicles. Soriano said the addition of licenses is just to accommodate the testing phase. The next set of regulations, due by the end of the year, will set rules for the wide-scale operation and sale of self-driving vehicles.

"Theoretically at the end of this year, an automaker will be able to sell a self-driving car in California," he said.

"We know that there is going to be a need to have more regulations because this technology is changing so rapidly," Soriano continued. "There is probably going to be some other aspects of it that we have not covered in the regulations that we need to cover."

He explained that commercial vehicles such as taxis, buses and trucks were purposely excluded from the regulations the DMV is currently writing up. The news might bum out Uber CEO Travis Kalanick's and his recent desire for driverless taxis, but these are new rules that could be addressed in future legislation. Multiple automakers have told the DMV they are working on the technology for commercial vehicles on top of personal transportation needs.

Stertz also noted one possible direction driverless technology could take is delivery trucks.

"What's interesting about that is that would not necessarily need to have the same crash standards because there's nobody in the car to protect," he said. "It's just a car delivering packages from one point to another."

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Imagine driverless cross-country big rigs

Beyond Audi or even America all together, Stertz highlighted that there's been a recent change in the Vienna Convention - the treaty that governs the road regulations in Europe - that could open up the region to the world's first driverless truck. Volvo, one of Audi's sister companies in the Volkswagon family, is particularly interested in the potential of self-driving trucks.

But before anything kicks off, the treaty changes still have to be approved on a nation-by-nation basis before the law of the road is altered.

"We're going to have to look at the regulations and the societal elements of what they're going to accept alongside the growth of the technology," Stertz said. "It's the wild card really."

What's next?

As for where the technology goes next, Stertz said Audi's system still needs to develop as it's not ready for every possible driving situation.

While the system we saw at CES 2014 could handle the steady 30mph flow of moderate highway traffic, it's still not ready to go cruising at full speed. It also doesn't have an enough quick response time to drive through suburbs where children may come running onto the street after a ball.

"I think you're going to see the ability to go faster," Stertz said of future Audi autonomous vehicles.

Level 0:

Cars that have no automation

Level 1:

Cars with a single function autonomous technology including cruise control

Level 2:

Single function autonomy coupled together such as adaptive cruise control and lane centering working together

Level 3:

Cars that can drive itself under most circumstance and driver need to hand over control to the self-driving system that cannot handle all circumstances

Level 4:

A fully autonomous car with no human intervention whatsoever

Another big thing in the works is a level 4 autonomous driving where the car is able to bring itself to a stop onto the side of the road in case it senses something is amiss with the driver or the system feels like it's at the edge of its self-operating limits.

"Our technology right now would be able to come to a safe stop where it is," Stertz said. "But in the not too distant future it's going to be able to pull off to the side of the road."

Stertz foresees truly autonomous cars, where passengers simply get in and read a book for the entire trip, coming in the next 20 to 30 years.

"Innovations in chip technology and so forth could cause a quantum leap forward, but right now we're looking at that kind of time frame," Stertz expounded.

Audi is already moving to create better systems, namely with sensors that are hidden and don't make the car look like it came from another planet. Using the Audi's current A7 test bed as an example, Stertz said the company has a military-grade laser scanner hidden behind the grill as well as more lasers behind the headlights.

Audi is also working to make the computing hardware behind autonomous vehicles smaller. At CES 2013 Audi demonstrated a driverless system with a trunk full of electronics, whereas this past January the system has been reduced to the size of a computer board. As the premium carmaker moves to a Tegra K1-powered system, Stertz said it could power their vehicles with the same capability as a supercomputer.

More importantly Stertz said getting drivers and the public comfortable with what these car can do is still a big priority.

"People really need to trust and understand what the limits of the technology are and part of that is bringing them along with what is possible," he said. "Just like in the early days of ABS, people were a little unsure of what the brakes where doing when it was pulsing to a stop."

Kevin Lee

Kevin Lee was a former computing reporter at TechRadar. Kevin is now the SEO Updates Editor at IGN based in New York. He handles all of the best of tech buying guides while also dipping his hand in the entertainment and games evergreen content. Kevin has over eight years of experience in the tech and games publications with previous bylines at Polygon, PC World, and more. Outside of work, Kevin is major movie buff of cult and bad films. He also regularly plays flight & space sim and racing games. IRL he's a fan of archery, axe throwing, and board games.