At Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters Tuesday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation that allows driverless cars to operate on the state's roads.
Google is perhaps the highest profile company working on cars that drive themselves, but many of the major automakers and U.S. government agencies like DARPA and the U.S. Army have also been pursuing related research projects.
"Today, we're looking at science fiction becoming tomorrow's reality," said Gov. Brown. Recounting California's gold rush history, he characterized the state as a global leader of innovation. "This is the place where new ideas, risk, and imagination come together to really build the future," he said.
However, California follows Nevada and Florida in legalizing driverless cars: Nevada passed a law in June 2011 allowing autonomous vehicles to operate within the state. The law became effective in March, and in May, a Google self-driving car was the first to receive a license to operate under the law. Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed autonomous vehicle legislation in April. Similar legislation is under consideration in Hawaii and Oklahoma.
[ Learn more and see a picture of a Google car. Read Google Gets License For Driverless Car. ]
California's new law directs the state Department of Motor Vehicles to create specific regulations by 2015. It requires a licensed driver behind the wheel as a failsafe.
Self-driving cars, supporters say, are safer than manually driven vehicles and could increase the capacity of highways by a factor of two or three through better controlled driving. Sebastian Thrun, the Google engineer who has spearheaded the development of the company's driverless car, said during a TED presentation that his goal with the project was to save a million people from dying in traffic accidents, the fate of one of his friends when Thrun was 18.
A 2010 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study, "Frequency of Target Crashes for IntelliDrive Safety Systems," found that the addition of autonomous crash-avoidance systems to vehicles could mitigate up to 81% of vehicle crashes. While the study touches on self-driving vehicles, its focus is "on crash-imminent situations where the driver may be able to take an evasive action in response to a system alert."
To date, two accidents involving Google's self-driving cars have been reported, neither of which appear to be the fault of Google's computers. An August 2011 accident involving a self-driving Google-powered Toyota Prius occurred when the car was being operated by a person, according to Google. A year earlier, Google engineers told the New York Times that the only driverless car accident to date had been when someone rear-ended a Google vehicle.
It remains to be seen whether Americans find the idea of driverless cars appealing. As a consequence of introducing the driverless car bill that became law in Florida, Rep. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) has been challenged in a political attack ad for his "out of touch priorities."
The attack ad appears to be oblivious to the claims of driverless car supporters. It depicts automated vehicles as a risk to elderly pedestrians and challenges the legislation as a distraction from the more important task of job creation. Yet according to California Sen. Alex Padilla, who introduced the bill signed by Brown, developing driverless cars will create jobs. And the Office of Governor Jerry Brown claims autonomous vehicles will expand the transportation options for the elderly and disabled.
Brown addressed fears about driverless cars in response to a reporter's question about lingering concerns from the California Highway Patrol. "Anybody who first gets in a car and finds the car is driving will be a little skittish," he said. "But they'll get over it."
Google co-founder Sergey Brin, wearing Project Glass augmented reality glasses, said he hopes that Google employees beyond those working on driverless cars will have the opportunity to ride in the company's autonomous vehicles within a year and that the general public should have access to the technology within five years. He said that Google's cars have driven 300,000 miles on roads so far and that, while human intervention for safety reasons has been necessary periodically during testing, the last 50,000 miles of driving have passed without requiring any test engineer to take the wheel.