Look ma, no er, driver

Google's fleet of autonomous vehicles has covered tens of thousands of kilometres.
Date:24 June 2011 Tags:,

Driverless cars on public roads moved a step closer to reality with the state of Nevada in the USA passing legislation authorising its Department of Transportation to develop applicable rules and regulations.

Nevada has in the past hosted the DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition for autonomous cars.

Stanford University law professor Ryan Calo notes that although he is “aware of no law that prohibits driverless cars, this appears to be the first law officially to sanction the technology”. Calo researches and presents on the intersection of law and technology.

Calo writes on Stanford’s Web site, “…. the law provides that the Nevada Department of Transportation ‘shall adopt regulations authorising the operation of autonomous vehicles on highways within the State of Nevada’.

“The law charges the Nevada DOT with setting safety and performance standards and requires it to designate areas where driverless cars may be tested. (Note that this could take some serious time: Japan, for instance, has been promising standards for personal robots for years and has yet to release them.)”

Although he has reservations about the bill’s specifics, he is positive: “Overall, however, this is great development. Autonomous driving has serious potential but its safety and savings need to be evidenced in a controlled environment. “

An exception to a ban on texting while being driven was passed as a separate bill. It reads in relevant part: “For the purposes of this section, a person shall be deemed not to be operating a motor vehicle if the motor vehicle is driven autonomously through the use of artificial-intelligence software and the autonomous operation of the motor vehicle is authorised by law.”

Google is reported to have been pushing Nevada to pass the legislation.

According to its official  blog, one of the big problems Google is working on is car safety and efficiency. “Our goal is to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time and reduce carbon emissions by fundamentally changing car use.”

The organisation's fleet of automated cars, manned by trained operators, have logged thousands of kilometres. They use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to “see” other traffic, as well as detailed maps (collected using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead. This is all made possible by Google’s data centres.

To develop this technology, they gathered some of the best engineers from the DARPA Challenges, a series of autonomous vehicle races organised by the US Government.

“According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1,2 million lives are lost every year in road traffic accidents. We believe our technology has the potential to cut that number, perhaps by as much as half. We’re also confident that self-driving cars will transform car sharing, significantly reducing car usage, as well as help create the new ‘highway trains of tomorrow’,” the blog states. “These highway trains should cut energy consumption while also increasing the number of people that can be transported on our major roads. In terms of time efficiency, the US Department of Transportation estimates that people spend on average 52 minutes each working day commuting. Imagine being able to spend that time more productively.”

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