California’s taking the lead on self-driving cars

June 5, 2012

This screen capture shows what a driverless car sees around it (credit: Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles)

Intrigued by the idea of eliminating human error from driving, a California legislator has introduced a bill to clarify that driverless cars are street legal.

The technology has a supporter in state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained mechanical engineer. Padilla’s Senate Bill 1298 would make it clear under California law that autonomous vehicles can use the public roads.

Similar legislation was passed last year in Nevada and is being considered by several other states.

The Padilla bill says those cars must, for now, have a licensed driver in the driver’s seat who can take control of the wheel at any point. It also instructs the CHP and DMV to recommend further safety standards to the Legislature.

He said conversations with researchers have led him to believe consumers could be buying self-driving cars within a decade. Google officials also said in an email to The Bee that much of autonomous technology is “years away, not decades.”

Padilla recently rode in Google’s car from downtown to Sacramento International Airport and came away impressed. All he did, he said, was push a green button on the console.

Officials with the Auto Alliance in Washington, D.C., which represents Toyota, Ford, General Motors, BMW and other major automakers, said alliance members are individually exploring autonomous vehicle technology, and have made huge advances in the past decade – much of it already in commercial vehicles.