I’ve written here a few times about some of the developments in automotive technology that are aimed at turning over at least part of the driver’s job to an autonomous computer system. Specifically, I’ve mentioned experiments, mostly in Europe, with “Road trains” (in essence, car convoys), and Google’s work on a self-driving vehicle. There are also efforts underway to gradually incorporate some of the more mature results of these experiments into production autos.
According to a report posted on the “Law and Disorder” blog at Ars Technica, Google has now received approval to test drive its autonomous autos in Nevada. The conditions for the license, established by legislation and regulations earlier this year, are not very different from the rules in the initial Google tests.
The state previously outlined that companies that want to test such vehicles will need an insurance bond of $1 million and must provide detailed outlines of where they plan to test it and under what conditions. Further, the car must have two people in it at all times, with one behind the wheel who can take control of the vehicle if needed.
As I’ve said before, the idea of automatic control is not new. Aircraft have had autopilots and instrument landing systems for many years; trains have had signaling and switching systems for a very long time, too. Some rail systems, like BART in the San Francisco Bay area, have centralized control systems.
Considering major transportation systems together, it’s clear that, in some sense at least, automobile transportation is the anomaly, consisting of a large number of vehicles operated more or less independently by more or less independent agents. We have traffic laws, of course, such as speed limits and STOP signs, but travel by car provides a lot of flexibility and freedom to the individual driver. That comes at a cost, however; in the US, somewhere between 35 and 40 thousand people die in auto crashes every year. (For what it’s worth, I think that the most important Driver’s Ed lesson almost never taught is “It’s not a Race”.)
Part of the move to “smarter” autos, of course, is about testing and refining the technology, and that has to be done. The bigger part of the problem, though, will involve changing how we think about driving.