Google drives one step forward

Alex Padilla, a California state Senator, plans to arrive at a press conference at the Sacramento capitol today in  Google modified Toyota Prius that drives itself.

How do you feel about self-driving vehicles? Safe enough, but only if all cars on the road were computer controlled? Read on! 

The announcement of new legislation by the Senator, written with Google’s input, is timed to coincide with new regulations allowing the world’s first autonomous vehicles to be road-tested and registered in neighboring Nevada. The bill reflects Mountain View, California-based Google’s latest push to show policymakers that while the cars of the future aren’t ready for public use yet, it’s time for laws to accommodate them. The bill offered by Padilla, a Pacoima (Los Angeles) Democrat, would direct the California Highway Patrol to develop regulations like Nevada’s for testing the self-driving vehicles on the state’s roadways and for their future operation by consumers. Such rules provide “a clearer path” in developing the technology, said Jay Nancarrow, a Google spokesman. “It is about creating the right kind of framework for the next step, should we move beyond the testing phase,” Nancarrow said.

Major carmakers are working on self-driving prototypes while rolling out semi-autonomous features, such as parking assistance, lane departure warning systems and adaptive cruise control, on premium vehicles now. Yet it’s Google’s car that’s attracted the most attention and inspired the regulatory push. Google’s autonomous cars have driven themselves 200,000 miles in California: across the Golden Gate Bridge, along the Pacific Coast Highway and on Hollywood Boulevard, according to the company.

In August of last year, a Google car rear-ended another vehicle and caused a five-car accident near the company’s headquarters, according to news reports. Google said at the time that the accident was caused by a human driver who was in control of the test vehicle. Nancarrow said Google’s cars have never been involved in an accident while in self-driving mode. Liability remains one of the major concerns that might delay commercial use of driverless cars for the public, Marchant said. There are also technical obstacles to overcome, such as evaluating obstructions on the road, said Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow with the Palo Alto, California-based Center for Internet and Society and the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford. And there are concerns about how the cars can be programmed to make value judgments, such as choosing to swerve off the road and crash to avoid hitting someone, Smith said. “There are tricky cost-benefit issues. There are technical barriers to be overcome and non-technical issues.”

Google acknowledges there are still things to be worked out. Nancarrow said the company believes existing product- liability laws can cover the emerging technology and that the cars won’t find themselves facing the same tough choices as human drivers. “Our cars are designed to avoid the kinds of situations that force people to make last-minute value judgments while driving,” he said.

Bruce Breslow, director of Nevada’s Department of Motor Vehicles, said he got a call from a lobbyist working on Google’s behalf just two weeks after taking his post last year. Breslow agreed to meet with Google engineers in California and try out the technology himself. The Google vehicles navigate using video cameras, radar sensors, a laser range-finder and detailed maps, according to a Google blog post. After seeing the car in action and asking questions, Breslow was won over. He later helped arrange a 20- mile ride around Carson City, the state capital, for Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval. “I thought it was amazing technology,” Breslow said. “The car sees better than you do. The car sees a 360-degree panorama. It sees the height of the curb. It sees three cars ahead, three cars behind. It can see beyond a blind spot.”

The regulations allow any company developing autonomous vehicles to get authorization from the DMV to test them on public roads after they have been tried in various conditions for 10,000 miles on private tracks or elsewhere. The companies must put up a $1 million to $3 million bond, depending on the number of vehicles to be tested, and ensure that there will always be two people in the vehicle to take over operation, if needed. The cars must have a “black box” to record 30 seconds prior to any impact in an accident. The safety of the vehicles must be certified by the manufacturer or a licensed certification facility before they can be registered by consumers for private operation on the roadways.

So, how are your feelings toward’s sitting in a self-driving vehicle, that can see better than you, can deal with traffic better than you, can park better than you, etc?

Author: Jason Zajdel

Learning as I go along. It's an awesome ride. =-)