In California, the sun-baked state where gridlocked freeways seem like the rule more than the exception, a future-thinking invention could halt the chronic traffic and cure a host of other auto-related ills. Yes, self-driving cars are now legal in the Golden State.
On Tuesday, during a visit to Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation to allow autonomous vehicles to operate on the state’s roads. In a press release, Brown deemed the signing of the bill as “turning today’s science fiction into tomorrow’s reality.” The state is the third in the U.S. to legalize self-driving cars, following Nevada and Florida who passed similar laws earlier this year. But it’s California’s chronically congested roads that could benefit the most from the vehicles. The tools that the car uses to drive, including radar and GPS tracking, help manage traffic flow by maintaining a constant speed and can even help reduce the necessary gap between cars.
But that doesn’t mean you’ll be lounging in the backseat watching Netflix while Google does all the navigating — yet, at least. There are an incalculable number of tests that still need to be completed before Minority Report becomes reality. And the legalization means that Google will be able to conduct these tests on their home turf.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin painted California as an appealing utopia for drivers once autonomous cars become standard. He stated in the release that they’ll be “providing transportation to those not currently served, increasing safety on the road, reducing or eliminating congestion, and turning parking into parkland.” More plentiful parking? Seems like the dream of the future, indeed.
Brown also laid out some regulatory ground rules. For now, all self-driving cars in the state need to have a licensed driver in the front seat of the car, as stipulated by the legislation, Senate Bill 1298. That precaution is there presumably in the case that, you know, there’s some unpredictable event that the creators of a car that drives itself were somehow unable to account for. But Google has been prepping the American public for a driverless future for years now. In August, the tech company said on its official blog that the autonomous cars have completed over 300,000 miles in a variety of conditions and “there hasn’t been a single accident under computer control.”
But for those worried about leaving your safety up to the computations of a microprocessor, the commonly-stated belief cited in news reports right now is that these autonomous cars might reduce the amount of accidents on the road. In January of this year, Wired magazine published an optimistic cover story trumpeting the age of the autonomous vehicle, and writer Tom Vanderbilt explained the safety reasoning after he rode in a robo-Prius:
Traffic is the most dangerous thing that most of us ever encounter. From 2001 to 2009, American roads claimed 369,629 lives. And the culprit was not poorly lighted thoroughfares or faulty gas pedals but us—one landmark study cited “human errors” as the “definite or probable causes” of 93 percent of crashes.
Faced with the alternatives — that guy who cut us off without signaling, the mom nursing an Ambien hangover who’s drifting into the right lane, the Bluetooth jockey doing 90 mph — I welcome our new robotic Prius-driving overlords.
The details sound earth-shattering, sure. But just one question remains: when can you get one? Probably a decade from now, Brin predicted, according to the Associated Press.