Thinking Tech

Google pushes to make self-driving cars street legal

Google pushes to make self-driving cars street legal

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Las Vegas is known for its glitzy casinos, offbeat entertainers and buffets. And if Google has its way, you can add to that list self-driving cars.

Las Vegas is known for its glitzy casinos, offbeat entertainers and buffets. And if Google has its way, you can add to that list self-driving cars.

The search giant has lobbied for Nevada state legislation that would allow for autonomous cars to be driven on public streets and also exempt them from a law that prohibits texting while driving, a report in the New York Times revealed. The proposal is being introduced as two separate bills, with both scheduled to be voted on before congress goes on break in June.

Google had announced last year that it was developing self-driving vehicles and since then have been continually testing the prototypes on public roads. Back in March, my SmartPlanet colleague John Herrman dished on some of the car's unique capabilities. Some of these include:

video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to “see” other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead. This is all made possible by Google’s data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.

Still, it was presumed by many that the technology was being developed to help morotists make better driving decisions and improve safety rather than demand that people hand over the keys. For instance, here's more of what the company posted on its company blog:

Safety has been our first priority in this project. Our cars are never unmanned. We always have a trained safety driver behind the wheel who can take over as easily as one disengages cruise control. And we also have a trained software operator in the passenger seat to monitor the software. Any test begins by sending out a driver in a conventionally driven car to map the route and road conditions. By mapping features like lane markers and traffic signs, the software in the car becomes familiar with the environment and its characteristics in advance. And we’ve briefed local police on our work.

Just from reading that you can probably infer that the technology may lead to something more along the lines of a self-correcting car and other driver-assisted enhancements. But a droid (no pun intended) on wheels? Who would have thought? And even if, say, a Google-operated Pruis eventually proves itself to be the pinacle of safe and efficient driving, some regulators are concerned that this may be a case of too much, too soon.

For instance, should the legislation pass, driverless vehicles would share the road with human drivers -- a scenario that existing traffic laws have yet to account for. Inevitably, you end up with questions such as "if one of the autonomous vehicles made a miscalculation that led to car accident, who would be at fault? Or would that mean Google can be legally liable for accident-related injuries?"

But proponents have a different take on such a mandate. According the the Times' report:

Policy analysts say Nevada is the first state to consider the commercial deployment of a generation of vehicles that may park themselves, perform automatic deliveries or even act as automated taxis on the Las Vegas casino strip.

“In some respects this is a great template and a great model,” said Ryan Calo, a legal scholar at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School. “It recognizes a need to create a process to test these vehicles and set aside an area of Nevada where testing can take place.”

I guess another way to look at it is that at least distraught gamblers wouldn't have to drive themselves home after blowing their entire months salary on a game of baccarat.

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure