California Gov. Brown steps out of Google's driverless Prius with Sen. Alex Padilla moments before signing a bill that legalizes driverless car testing in the state.
Another state bill passed, another step closer to never having to drive again. On Tuesday California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that allows driverless cars to be tested and operated on public roads, paving the way for the state to become one of the first in the US to adopt autonomous vehicles.

The signing follows on the heels of a bill that Nevada governor Brian Sandoval signed into law that allows for autonomous vehicles to be tested with regular traffic out on the open road. The state was the first to do so. Now California is in close pursuit. Like the Nevada bill, the California bill establishes safety and performance guidelines for the testing and operation of autonomous vehicles on the state’s roads and highways.

California lawmakers are clearly enthusiastic about getting driverless cars on Golden State Freeways. Earlier this month the state senate passed the bill with a unanimous 37-0 vote.

And if any state should have driverless cars, it’s California. Stanford has been developing driverless cars for years, with their driverless Junior taking second place in DARPA’s Grand Challenge in 2007, Shelley racing to the top of Pike’s Peak and, most recently, topping speeds of 120 mph on a race track. And of course we know all about Google’s driverless Prius and soon to arrive Lexus. The seasoned Prius just passed 300,000 miles and has even begun chauffeuring Google employees to work.

Google's next driverless hybrid: the Lexus RX450h. All the technology and even more style.

Like the Nevada legislation, the California bill requires a licensed driver to be in the vehicle while it’s driving as a backup in case of a mishap. Probably the biggest obstacle that driverless cars face is a public that isn’t quite ready to just sit behind the wheel and put their lives in the hands of robotic drivers. Gov. Brown, however, thinks the public will come around: “Anyone who gets inside a car and finds out the car is driving will be a little skittish, but they’ll get over it.” Brown should know, he was ushered by Google’s driverless Prius to the bill signing along with Sen. Alex Padilla who wrote the bill.

So now that, along with Florida who legalized driverless cars in May, three states in the US are now testing driverless cars, how long should it be before the average consumer steps into one? Google co-founder Sergei Brin thinks autonomous vehicles will be commercially available within a decade. He also mentioned that Google will not be making their own driverless cars but will be partnering with automakers to help develop them.

The anticipated benefits to having driverless cars are many: increased safety, less congestion, better fuel efficiency, and allowing people who can’t drive – the blind, disabled, elderly, intoxicated – to get around on their own. Some difficulties with the latter group would probably remain. Nevada, being the first to pass a bill to draw up driverless car regulations, has the perfect testing ground to work out such difficulties in Las Vegas. But even if we do see a decrease in overall accidents when they finally do hit the road, there's the old baby carriage and shopping cart problem: the car knows to avoid both, but when it has to make a choice between the two, will it make the right one? The question was posed by Ryan Calo, robotics professor at the University of Washington. It's a great question because it raises the possibility that, as the number of accidents go down – even way down – would statistical improvement be powerful enough to overcome the horrific nightly news story about the robotic car that made the wrong choice?

Not everyone is eager to fast track driverless cars. The trade group Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is urging regulators to take a more thorough approach, concerned that the “legislation lacks any provision protecting an automaker whose car is converted to an autonomous operation vehicle without consent for even knowledge of that auto manufacturer.” Clearly, drawing up driverless car regulations is still pretty uncharted territory for the motor vehicle administrations around the country and around the world. If they’re going to get it right, an active dialogue between state MVAs, trade groups, local and federal governments, and the public is going to be vital. But it’s reassuring that yet another state is pushing forward with getting driverless cars legalized and on the road. More will soon undoubtedly follow.

[images: Mercury News and Motoroids]
images: Mercury News and Motoroids

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.