We all know that texting while driving is a bad idea that’s likely to result in an accident. In many states, it will result in a ticket if you’re caught, even if you aren’t breaking any other traffic laws. So, what would your reaction be if you saw someone in the car next to you texting, both hands off the steering wheel and only occasionally glancing up at the road? Chances are, you’d pull over and dial 911 fast, because, of course, you would never dial your cell phone while driving.
If you live in Nevada, you might want to check the car’s license plate first. If the car has a red plate with an infinity symbol on the left side, you can put your cell phone and your righteous indignation away. The “driver” is likely behind the wheel of one of Google’s self driving cars.
Nevada Leads the Way
At the time of this writing, Nevada is the only state to issue licenses for self driving cars. Other states and Washington D.C. have issued temporary permits to allow the cars to be tested on public roads, but Nevada is the only state in which you can legally operate (or, more accurately, allow the onboard embedded computer to operate) a self driving automobile. Nevada became the first state to issue a license for a self driving car in May 2012.
In most states, there are no laws in place to regulate the operation of self driving vehicles. Lawmakers have natural concerns about how such vehicles could be regulated and what kinds of laws would need to be in place to ensure that such vehicles are operated safely.
Why Nevada? Largely because Google has lobbied heavily in the state. Most industry experts think that Google’s reasoning has something to do with Nevada’s annual Consumer Electronics Show and the Las Vegas Auto Show. Google isn’t saying, but the fact that they have produced a viable self driving car lends itself to that notion-especially if the car can be produced at a price that would make it a commercially legitimate product.
That Can’t be Safe
The idea that a driverless car could be safe is foreign to most of us, the stuff of science fiction. The safety record of these vehicles, however, is surprisingly good. In fact, the only accident we are aware of happened while the vehicle was being driven manually. Tests were conducted in difficult driving conditions, including:
- Lombard Street in San Francisco
- Pacific Coast Highway
- Golden Gate Bridge
- New York City
- Washington D.C.
- Driving around Lake Tahoe, Nevada
Google’s self driving car is equipped with a manual override which can be initiated by tapping the brake or turning the steering wheel. In that sense, it works much like the cruise control we’re all familiar with. How can it possibly be safe? Here are some of the technological features we’re aware of which allow the Google self driving car to operate safely:
GPS. These days, many of us already rely on our GPS to direct us where we’re going. The embedded computer system in the Google self driving car takes this to the next level by allowing the car to follow GPS directions to its objective without the driver’s hands on the wheel.
LIDAR. Think RADAR, but using lasers or visible light instead of echo-location. The LIDAR system is able to detect objects in front of, behind, and on either side of the car. It can then project a 3D image of them to the car’s embedded computer. This system allows the self driving car to keep a safe distance from other cars, pedestrians, or anything else that might be in the road. The embedded computer can pay attention to all directions at once and is able to react faster than drivers generally can.
Potential Impact of Driverless Cars
When thinking about the potential impact of driverless cars, our thoughts naturally turn to the direct impact they will have on our own driving. We’ll be able to sit back and relax while letting the embedded computer do the driving for us. That is, once we get used to the idea that the computer is a better driver than we are.
That’s not the only potential impact of the driverless car, however. Here are a few things the driverless car could do for us, especially once they start to come into common use:
- Elimination of traffic congestion.
- Fuel conservation.
- Lessened need for traffic law enforcement
- Fewer accidents caused by driver error
- Longer trips in shorter time, due to less driver fatigue
Will Google be releasing a commercially available self driving car soon? That’s anyone’s guess, but things certainly appear to be pointing that direction.