Driverless Cars Brought Closer to Reality as Nevada Passes Bill

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Forget the Ferrari. Future Vegas partygoers may find themselves cruising the strip in driverless rides.

There’s really not a whole lot in Nevada besides long highways and oil fields. But they do have Vegas, that desert oasis of high-density excess that puts Nevada on the map many times over. The state’s governor has just signed a law that subscribes perfectly to the ‘Bells and Whistles’ State and at the same time makes engineers’ mouths water. It’s a law requiring the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles to “adopt regulations authorizing the operation of autonomous vehicles.”

That’s right. Elvis is going stylin’ in a driverless car.

We were pretty excited the first time Assembly Bill 511 first came across our virtual desk last month. As we mentioned, among the bill’s requirements is for Nevada’s DMV to set guidelines by which a person obtains an autonomous vehicle driver’s licenses. The seemingly contradictory license is made even more so by the bill’s language: “The driver’s license endorsement…must…recognize the fact that a person is not required to actively drive an autonomous vehicle.” But of course guidelines must be set when operating a vehicle that navigates city streets, stops for pedestrians, etc. I’m guessing these ‘drivers’ won’t actually be allowed to nap on the way to work (at least not yet, but that is the whole point, isn’t it?), and they’re definitely going to have to know where the kill switch is in case of a malfunction.

Also on the DMV’s To Do list are requirements for the vehicle itself, requirements for obtaining insurance, establishing safety standards and testing guidelines. Definitions are laid out too for these as yet unroad-tested technologies. Among them, “artificial intelligence” is defined as “the use of computers and related equipment to enable a machine to duplicate or mimic the behavior of human beings.” You can find the entire bill here.

In addition, the forward-looking AB511 affords privileged parking for vehicles that run on alternative fuels including compressed natural gas, hydrogen or propane.

The law appears to prepare for the inevitable. Techs around the world are racing to get driverless vehicles on the road. Last August a pair of driverless vans made a three-month, 8,000 mile trek from Italy to China–traversing Siberia and the Gobi Desert along the way–to pull up at the World Fair. Human drivers intervened from time to time, but it was a smashing proof of principle. A few months earlier Stanford’s robot car, Junior, showed off its new James Bond-like parking skills: a flamboyant, high-speed 180 skid into a tight spot. More recently, Stanford collaborated with VW Electronics Research lab to build an autonomous Audi TTS that ran the Pike’s Peak International Hill Climb course, reaching speeds up to 45 mph. Not to be left behind in any technology race, Google is famously developing their own robotic vehicle technology. Their collective fleet odometer already counts over 140,000 autonomous miles.

While we still have a ways to go before we’re all being schlepped around by our GPS- and sensor-enabled chauffeurs, AB511–at least for Nevada–gets the DMV going on the regulatory framework. The language in the bill is pretty vague and extremely limited in its scope. But its greatest value may come from the regulatory and, perhaps more importantly, social dialogue it opens up. As Hub writer Aaron Saenz has argued, getting communities to allow autonomous vehicles on their roads might prove more of a challenge than finalizing the technology that makes it possible. Sticky issues, such as who is responsible in the inevitable event of an autonomous car crash, will need to be addressed ahead of time.

The road ahead is uncharted. Regulatory bodies at both the state and federal level, manufacturers and communities as well will all have to work closely if autonomous vehicles are ever to hit the streets. The fact that Nevada is the first state to push through such a bill means they intend to pave the way for other states. As such, they stand to reap huge benefits for a transportation system that is potentially safer and more energy efficient than what’s on the streets today. One can only guess how quickly that system will materialize, but it seems like Nevada’s not waiting for anyone.

[image credit: ULTra]
image: ULTra

Discussion — 2 Responses

  • Kristof June 28, 2011 on 12:32 pm

    Great News!! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; This tech is the next big thing and will have as large of an impact upon the world as much the internet has had, if not bigger!! Beyond all of the economical and social benefits the truly revolutionary aspect of the technology is that it is introducing a non-biological species to the planet. This device will be told to go from point A to B but how it gets there and the decisions that are made along the way will be up to the car. This non-biological brain will be making decisions, navigating, and learning about ITS world. The innovation that will be based upon the automated car will be tremendous, the new industries (or models) will replace much of how we do business today, and the lessons learned from the navigation software will be applicable to all vehicles (land, sea, or air)going forward including humanoid robots. This will be huge stepping stone toward the singulairty and will forever change the world.

  • viny July 2, 2011 on 8:29 am

    The article says the point of this technology it that they would be “allowed to nap on the way to work.” NO. The point is saving lives. What better place to start than Vegas? So long as the cars themselves won’t run on alcohol, hehe.