On Monday, Nevada became the first to approve a license for “autonomous vehicles” — in other words, cars that cruise, twist and turn without the need for a driver — on its roads.
The license goes to Google, the Silicon Valley technology giant known more for its search engine and e-mail service that nonetheless has been known to dive into other big ideas such as space elevators to Internet-enabled glasses.
Department of Motor Vehicles officials in Nevada said it has issued Google the nation’s first license to test self-driving cars on public streets, after conducting demonstrations on the Las Vegas Strip and in Carson City that show the car is as safe or perhaps even safer than a human.
“It gets honked at more often because it’s being safe,” said Nevada DMV Director Bruce Breslow.
Self-driving vehicle technology works like auto-pilot to guide a car in this case a modified Prius with little or no intervention from a human operator. Laser radar mounted on the roof and in the grill detects pedestrians, cyclists and other vehicles, creating a virtual buffer zone around the obstacles that the car then avoids.
While some envision the robotic car dropping off its operator at the front of the mall and hunting for a parking spot on its own, Breslow said not so fast.
Nevada’s regulations require two people in the test cars at all times. One person is behind the wheel, while the other person monitors a computer screen that shows the car’s planned route and keeps tabs on roadway hazards and traffic lights.
If there’s a glitch, the human driver can override the autonomous auto with a tap on the brake or a hand on the steering wheel.
Last summer, Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval took the car for a spin in and around the state’s quiet capital city.
But Las Vegas Boulevard, where costumed superheroes routinely take the crosswalks and massive billboards angle for the attention of starry-eyed tourists, was perhaps best suited to test the car’s main purpose.
“They’re designed to avoid distracted driving,” Breslow said. “When you’re on the Strip and there’s a huge truck with a three scantily clad women on the side, the car only sees a box.”
So far, Google’s applied to license three test vehicles. Breslow said the cars will display red plates and an infinity symbol to represent their status as vehicles of the future.
Once they’re ready for the market something Breslow guesses could come in three to five years the plates will be green.
Insurance really is a non-issue. Google would have a standard product liability policy, maybe with a higher attachment point (given their balance sheet). However, the gov’t could help by reinsuring the prod liab policy. Could be setup as a 50% quota share for awards excess of $1mm. As someone else mentioned, the shipping industry has a lot to gain here. Maybe the gov’t only backstops the personal lines for driverless solutions and at the same time stimulate some meaningful tort reform in the name of progress.