LOS ANGELES (AP) — Sooner or later, consumers will be able to buy cars that rely on computers — not the owner — to do the driving.
Though the technology is still being tested, the day it rolls out into broad public use can now be measured in years, not decades.
With that timeframe in mind, California's Department of Motor Vehicles on Tuesday began puzzling through how to regulate the vehicles that haven't been fully developed yet.
Among the complex questions officials sought to unravel at the initial public hearing on regulations in Sacramento:
How will the state know the cars are safe?
Does a driver even need to be behind the wheel?
Can manufacturers mine data from onboard computers to make product pitches based on where the car goes or set insurance rates based on how it is driven?
Do owners get docked points on their license if they send a car to park itself and it slams into another vehicle?
Once the stuff of science fiction, driverless cars could be commercially available by decade's end. Under a California law passed in 2012, the DMV must decide by the end of this year how to integrate the cars — often called autonomous vehicles — onto public roads.
Three other states have passed driverless car laws, but those rules mostly focus on testing. California has mandated rules on testing and public operation, and the DMV expects within weeks to finalize regulations dictating what companies must do to test the technology on public roads.
Those rules came after Google Inc. had already sent its fleet of Priuses and Lexuses, fitted with an array of sensors including radar and lasers, hundreds of thousands of miles in California. Major automakers also have tested their own models.
Now, the DMV is scrambling to regulate the broader use of the cars. With the federal government apparently years away from developing regulations, California's rules could effectively become the national standard.
Much of the initial discussion Tuesday focused on privacy concerns.
California's law requires autonomous vehicles to log records of operation so the data can be used to reconstruct an accident.
But the cars "must not become another way to track us in our daily lives," John M. Simpson of the nonprofit Consumer Watchdog said at the hearing. Simpson called out Google, saying the Internet giant rebuffed attempts to add privacy guarantees when it pushed the 2012 legislation mandating rules on testing and public operation.