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Google Is My Pilot: Nevada Gambles on Self-Driving Cars

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Nevada’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has given Google the nation’s first license to test self-driving cars on public streets. The adolescent-aged Internet search giant has been working toward this goal for the past couple of years by holding test-driving demonstrations along freeways, state highways and neighborhoods both in Carson City and along the Las Vegas Strip.

Google’s contention has been that its autonomous auto would be safer than those driven by humans, offer more fuel-efficiency and promote economic development. The Nevada DMV’s Autonomous Review Committee seems to have bought into this argument and is issuing the Google’s self-driving Toyota Prius a distinctive license plate featuring an infinity symbol and the letters “AU” set against a red background. (Nevada license plates for old-fashioned flesh-and-blood drivers depict a mountainous scene in blue and white below a yellow-orange sky.)

What Google's driverless car sees.

Google began lobbying Nevada to be the first state to allow self-driving cars to be legally operated on public roads shortly after the company’s self-driving car project exited stealth mode in 2010, Scientific American reported in May 2011. At that time Google’s robot fleet of six Priuses and one Audi had traveled more than 240,000 kilometers with minimal human intervention and only one incident in which a test car was rear-ended by a (human-driven) vehicle. The cars are outfitted with two forward-facing video cameras, a 360-degree laser range finder, four radar sensors and advanced GPS units.

Google estimates that one million lives could be saved annually around the globe by driverless cars. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration points out that even though traffic crashes and fatalities have come down in recent years, in the U.S. alone there were 5.8 million crashes in 2008. Of those, about 34,000 resulted in fatalities, 1.6 million resulted in injuries and 4.2 million entailed some sort of property damage.

Nevada has actually thrown open the door to anyone interested in testing an autonomous vehicle on the state’s roads. An applicant must submit proof that his or her driverless car has driven a minimum of 16,000 kilometers, a complete description of the autonomous technology, a detailed safety plan, and a plan for hiring and training test drivers. According to the DMV, “When autonomous vehicles are eventually made available for public use, motorists will be required to obtain a special driver license endorsement, and the DMV will issue green license plates for the vehicles.” Sounds like Nevada’s pretty sure that driverless cars are a part of the state’s future.

Images courtesy of Google

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. VinnieAve 6:13 pm 05/8/2012

    Personally, I think this a part of a great future. The less humans can kill each other the better.

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  2. 2. payitfwd 6:54 pm 05/8/2012

    This news is just too cool. Are taxi cab companies going to be allowed to purchase these vehicles and put them into use? They have some really awful drivers out there. My fingers are crossed.

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  3. 3. 567 9:36 pm 05/8/2012

    There is a serious traffic accident in the Hsueh-shan Tunnel of TAIWAN on March 7, 2012, that caused two people dead.
    How this driverless system to deal with the tire broken ?

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  4. 4. Durazac 12:00 am 05/9/2012

    Unlike VinnieAve, I have no problem with people killing each other – seems then normal and natural way to me – but I am still pretty excited about the self driving car. Of course, all the jobs it will kill will be fodder for the evil advances of technology folk, but anything that moves technology forward (from cars to death rays) and does not reduce freedom is good by me.

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  5. 5. phalaris 8:52 am 05/9/2012

    Thank god (or whoever) for the good old USA and its diversity and open-mindedness. It would take 50 years here in Europe before anyone would be even allowed to propose trying these things in real life.

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  6. 6. Bob_CA 4:08 pm 05/9/2012

    This is no big step. Here in southern California we have lots of cars barreling down the freeway every day with no one driving. There’s someone sitting in the driver’s seat, of course, but they’ve decided they have something more interesting to do. While I’m not all that trusting of Google, it’s got to be better than having no one but Newton calling the shots.

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  7. 7. Suzane 4:30 am 05/11/2012

    this is a verry good idea to help the disabled person, but we must be wary and not to rely to much on the google car

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  8. 8. poulot73000 4:33 am 05/11/2012

    I think this Google Car is a great invention for disabled people because they can be more autonomous.
    They will not be dependent on other people to travel or just to go shopping.

    So thanks to Google Car developers.

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  9. 9. Daber73 4:44 am 05/11/2012

    To answer to “567″, I think there are tire pressure sensors and when the system detects a problem, the car slows down immediately and stops on the hard shoulder.
    Also you can apparently take control of the car, fortunately !

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  10. 10. saxophone 5:05 am 05/11/2012

    I would like to say that , if there are autonomous cars everywhere in the world= THE CAR WILL DOMINATE THE WORLD.What about the driver’s free will?
    That’s good for the environment but I like to live free!!

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  11. 11. uconnron 12:22 pm 05/11/2012

    I would assume that driverless cars will require one to drive at the speed limit of major highways. Perhaps a special lane should be provided for these autos with the option of moving into a regular lane if one desires.

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  12. 12. Nate C 4:49 pm 05/15/2012

    Think of the gas and time saved! When the light turns green it takes forever for each car to take their turn one by one pressing the gas. Imagine if the whole line of cars accelerated at the same time instead, We’d never have to stop more than once at a red light!

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  13. 13. WinsBurke 11:04 pm 05/15/2012

    Trivial in the context of the article, but the symbol on the license plate is a Mobius, not an “infinity symbol.”

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  14. 14. FloraFauna 5:26 pm 08/28/2012

    This is great! It can’t come too soon for me. I love the title, because frankly God makes a lousy co-pilot.

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