They're now street legal in three states--with Governor Jerry Brown's signature Tuesday, California joins Florida and Nevada--and Google claims they've proven to be safer, better drivers than the average human behind the wheel.
Governor Brown came to the Googleplex in Mountain View Tuesday afternoon to sign SB 1298, a bill that “creates a legal framework and safety standards for autonomous vehicles on state roads and highways.”
To put that more plainly, Google — one of the largest and most innovative companies in the state, and now the fifth largest in the US – used its considerable wealth and charm to nudge the state legislature in Sacramento into letting it test its fleet of driverless cars without too much hassle.
Google has been testing its vehicles on California roads since 2010. One trip back then took a Google vehicle from San Francisco to Santa Monica, via the famously beautiful and twisty Pacific Coast Highway, without anyone at the wheel.
Will these vehicles, which manage not to bang into other cars and pedestrians by using a bunch of cameras, sensors, laser range-finders, and naturally, Google Maps, fundamentally change how we get around? The tech that allows the cars to operate on their own are the same that many cars already have to assist with parallel parking and preventing lane drift, but the idea of completely giving up control is a leap people may not be ready to take.
The New York Times wrote in January:
Despite Google’s early success, technological barriers remain. Some trivial tasks for human drivers — like recognizing an officer or safety worker motioning a driver to proceed in an alternate direction — await a breakthrough in artificial intelligence that may not come soon.
Moreover, even after intelligent cars match human capabilities, significant issues would remain, suggested Sven A. Beiker, executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University. Today, human drivers frequently bend the rules by rolling through stop signs and driving above speed limits, he noted; how would a polite and law-abiding robot vehicle fare against such competition?
“Everybody might be bending the rules a little bit,” he said. “This is what the researchers are telling me — because the car is so polite it might be sitting at a four-way intersection forever, because no one else is coming to a stop.”
One thing's for certain: Google's experimental gadgets have become a cultural flash point. During New York Fashion Week, earlier this month, designer Diane von Furstenberg featured Google Glass, the smart glasses, in her runway show.
The driverless cars are due to make an appearance in the upcoming movie, "The Internship," which stars Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, teaming up for the first time since their 2005 hit "Wedding Crashers." The film, written by Vaughn, is about a pair of 40-somethings (Vaughn and Wilson) who land two of Google's coveted internships.
Google is taking an advisory role in "The Internship," Pulse2 and Bloomberg reported, helping to build a "Google office" on the set at Georgia Tech, where most of the filming is taking place.
And in Florida, the ambiguously named Committee to Protect Florida is using the driverless cars, which are legal in the state, as an attack in a political attack ad against Republican candidate for the State House. The ad, aimed squarely at Tampa's significant elderly population, claims that first-term Rep. Jeffrey Brandes's legislation allowing autonomous cars put the development of technology over the safety of constituents.
"He's more interested in legalizing driverless remote-controlled cars... than fixing our economy."
The ad shows imagery of a car barely missing a senior citizen out for a stroll with her walker, and ends with the sounds of a car as it skids and then crashes.
Google's cars (which do, actually, allow for a driver to override the autonomous functions if necessary) are a natural fit for the meme-y Twitter character, @InvisibleObama, born after Clint Eastwood thrilled and confused America with his speech to an empty chair at the Republican National Convention last month.
Here, InvisibleObama get's combined with another popular meme, Futurama Fry:
CA just made self-driving cars legal, and I just approved this message: twitter.com/InvisibleObama…— Invisible Obama (@InvisibleObama) September 26, 2012
And that's how you know you've really arrived.
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