Driverless cars are no longer science fiction — they're reality.
California became the second state (the first was Nevada) to approve autonomous, self-driving cars on the road. Jerry Brown, governor of California, signed the bill at Google's (GOOG) headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., on Tuesday.
Google has trumpeted its computer-controlled cars and claims that its modified, driverless Toyota (TM) Priuses and Lexus RX 450h cars have logged more than 300,000 miles on busy highways and roads without an accident. (Google did say that one of its Priuses was involved in a minor accident last year).
"This law will allow California's pioneering engineers to safely test and implement this amazing new technology," Brown said.
Google developed its autonomous cars in 2010. The artificial intelligence software system in the cars can navigate intersections, curves and roads by collecting images and data from video cameras, radar sensors and light detection devices.
The company purportedly has no plans to commercially sell one of its vehicles. Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt told Reuters in July "self-driving cars should in our lifetime become the predominant way."
Self-driving cars are not unique to Google. All the major auto manufacturers have been researching similar technology for years. Bob Lutz, a former vice president at General Motors (GM), says driverless cars could be ubiquitous in 20 years. Many cars already offer gadgets that eliminate the human factor: self-parking technology, cruise control, lane departure warnings, GPS. Just as the automobile replaced the horse-drawn carriage, computers will replace human drivers, which Lutz says would be a good thing.
"Electronic driverless systems don't get drunk, don't smoke pot, they don't go to sleep," he says in an interview with The Daily Ticker. "We'll see a huge reduction in accidents."
According to the Census Bureau, there were 10.8 million motor vehicle accidents in 2009, the latest research available. Nearly 35,000 people die every year in car accidents and 90% of accidents are caused by human error. Driverless cars will likely reduce the number of fender-benders and serious collisions, but computers are no by means infallible. For the time being, autonomous cars will require at least one human passenger. The California law stipulates that these "robotic chauffeurs" cannot handle the state's roadways without a registered driver in the passenger seat.
Are drivers enthusiastic or outraged at the driverless concept? According to a March J.D. Power and Associates survey, 37% of U.S. consumers expressed interest in the autonomous driving technology. Consulting firm Accenture polled U.S. and British consumers last year about driverless cars. Nearly half said they would be "comfortable" in a self-driving car.
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