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Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

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

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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

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

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