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Google Gets First Driverless Car License: Strings Attached

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Photograph courtesy Nevada DMV

A Toyota Prius outfitted by Google to drive itself is about to get that token of independence for which so many teens anxiously wait: a license. Yes, the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles has approved the first-ever license for an autonomous test vehicle.

On Monday, the state agency revealed a red license plate marked with an infinity symbol for Google’s self-driving Prius and announced plans to formally present the license on May 23. This futuristic, modified hybrid uses GPS, artificial intelligence, cameras, and sensors to navigate the Las Vegas Strip, desert highways, and other public roadways without help from human occupants.

Like a learner’s permit for teenage drivers, however, the license has limits. Two licensed drivers are required to be in the vehicle at all times, including one behind the wheel. Other requirements for the license include proof of at least 10,000 miles traveled in autonomous mode, and the purchase of a $100,000 surety bond (or a cash deposit), which is good for up to five test vehicles.

Google has been testing its driverless cars for years in both California and Nevada, logging more than 250,000 miles with a fleet of about 10 cars. And while Google was the first to apply for the Nevada license, it is not the only company developing auto-pilot technology. According to the Nevada DMV, unnamed automakers have “indicated their desire to test and develop autonomous technology in Nevada in the future.”

General Motors, for example, is testing a system called Super Cruise, which uses radar, ultrasonic sensors, GPS map data, and cameras to detect curves in the road and automate steering, braking, lane-centering, and other functions.

And German automotive supplier Continental Automotive Group announced in March that it had completed a two-week endurance test in Nevada covering more than 6,000 miles of “highly automated driving on public roads.” In the tests, a modified VW Passat relied on a system programmed to switch off and revert to driver control if road markings could not be detected or if bends in the road were deemed too tight. If a driver failed to react, the system would slow the car to a stop.

Google itself does not plan to enter the business of building cars. As the company’s Anthony Levandowski told reporters at the recent SAE World Congress last month in Detroit, “All options are open,” from giving the technology away to working with automotive suppliers or car makers. “We’re trying to figure out which paths make the most sense.”

This type of transportation innovation lies at the intersection of two industries with dramatically different development cycles. In the auto industry, a typical car takes years to go from concept to commercial production. In software, engineers are often urged to launch early (in a matter of weeks or months) and iterate often.

Driverless cars also exist in something of a legal gray area. Historically, states have been responsible for regulating their drivers, while vehicle design issues have been regulated at the federal level, said Bryant Walker Smith, a resident fellow at the Center for Automotive Research and the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University. “When you have a vehicle design that mimics a driver, it’s not clear who should be taking the lead,” he said in a telephone interview.

Caution and forward thinking are warranted as we shift from what Smith described as “a world where drivers make decisions and are generally held liable for those decisions, to a world where those decisions are being made by cars.” Americans drove nearly 3 trillion miles in 2011. At that scale, Smith said, “If there’s something that can happen, it will. If there’s some bizarre, completely unexpected situation, it will happen.”

Nevada is already looking ahead to a time when manufacturers will make self-driving cars available to the public, noting in its announcement this week that those future cars will receive green plates marked with infinity symbols. “We’re probably not at the point yet where someone could build a car in their garage that could drive itself,” said Smith, “but we could be in the future.”

At this point, the cost of components alone—in the range of $100,000 to $200,000—creates a barrier to such tinkering. And that doesn’t even account for the resources required to create detailed maps of the routes a self-driving car would follow, and write the complex code that allows a car to recognize pedestrians and traffic signals, Smith said.

“For the last 40 years or so, people have said autonomous vehicles were 20 years away,” said Smith. “Now people are saying that they’re 10 years away.” A decade from now, will these futuristic vehicles still be 10 years away? Smith said he has reason to be optimistic. After all, commercially available vehicles already automate certain functions, such as lane departure and object detection; and new trucking technology can monitor and automate certain driving functions for maximum fuel efficiency.

Yet elements of automation here and there are a far cry from a fully driverless car that does not require human supervision. For Smith, when the day comes that an automaker puts “an ad on TV that shows the would-be driver of the vehicle asleep or on her iPad, when they’re willing to make the statement publicly that the driver does not need to pay attention—I think that would be a truly watershed moment.”