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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Nevada Legislature Votes On Driverless Cars

There has been a lot of hubbub over the recent passage by the Nevada legislature of a bill allowing operation of "autonomous" or driverless cars. Support for the bill was lobbied heavily by the internet giant Google who, it was disclosed last October, had been testing autonomous vehicles on California highways for some time; racking up more than 140,000 miles throughout the state in a fleet of autonomous vehicles.

It should be noted that Nevada's Assembly Bill 511 doesn't actually give the go-ahead for autonomous vehicles but, instead, directs the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to adopt regulations concerning operation of autonomous vehicles. The bill also requires that anyone who may occupy an autonomous vehicle in the future carry a license endorsement showing that they don't actually have to be in physical control of the vehicle.

Requirement of a license endorsement means that future visitors to Las Vegas and Reno, who may have envisioned that they could drink and party into the wee hours and then, just tell their rental car to take them home, will still have to rely on a cab or designated driver.

The Nevada DMV has a lot of work ahead. Google isn't the only company testing autonomous vehicles. Audi, in partnership with Stanford University tested an autonomous vehicle by having it drive more than 14,000 feet to the top of Pikes Peak and back. No mean feat when you consider that one wrong turn could have sent the car plummeting off the side of a sheer cliff. Volkswagen (VW) recently unveiled an auto-pilot system for their cars. Unlike the Google and Audi vehicles, the VW system relies on current technology, using adaptive cruise control and lane recognition but still requires a driver to set the speed, monitor road conditions, and take over if necessary.

The quest for a driverless vehicle has been around for some time. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the folks that gave us GPS, has held an annual challenge for development of autonomous vehicles for the US Military. DARPA's challenges are greater because their vehicles have to travel over rugged terrain and won’t have lane markers or road embedded wireless signaling devices to keep them aligned.

In New York, the World Congress on Intelligent Transportation Systems showed off designs for vehicles with onboard cameras and navigation systems working in concert with wireless warning systems embedded in street lamps and stop lights. These systems can warn a driver of hazards ahead and can take over and stop a vehicle if the driver ignores the warnings. Other systems call for cars to communicate with each other wirelessly to maintain position and warn of upcoming maneuvers.

The hope of all these technologies is that commuting in the future will be easier and safer. If all cars are communicating and maintaining a safe separation, they can drive faster and closer to each other. Taking the human equation out of the picture means not having to worry about aggressive or distracted drivers and will make commuting smoother and faster.

While the technology is here now, it will take a long time and investment by industry and governments to wire the roads and agree on a standard technology for all vehicles. Once that is agreed upon, it would still take several years to get all of the current non-autonomous vehicles off the road. And, not everyone is comfortable with the thought of allowing computers to take over driving responsibilities. One just has to look at the experience of Airbus Industries and its first computerized "fly-by-wire" passenger jet to understand what can happen when computers and humans conflict.

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