Mountain View Voice

News - September 28, 2012

Governor signs driverless car bill at Google HQ

by Daniel DeBolt

Gov. Jerry Brown arrived at Google Tuesday to sign a bill to allow the testing of driverless cars on California's roads. And how did he get there? The governor rolled into the Mountain View campus alongside Google co-founder Sergey Brin in one of the company's self-driving vehicles.

Gov. Brown told an audience before signing the bill that the state government "can either get in the way or we can help and and set the framework" for allowing self-driving vehicles on the road.

The bill, authored by state Sen. Alex Padilla, (D-Pacoima) will allow licensed and bonded drivers to test the cars, and requires that a human be at the wheel in case of emergencies. The DMV is instructed to put the new regulations into effect "as soon as practicable," but no later than January, 2015.

"Developing and deploying autonomous vehicles will save lives and create jobs," Padilla said. "California is uniquely positioned to be a global leader in this field."

Brin said Google plans to have a "broad subset" of its employees test the cars in the next year, and that the technology will be available to the general public "several years after that."

"You can count on one hand the number of years before people will be able to experience this," Brin said.

Proponents of the cars say they will make roads safer, reduce traffic and even make more efficent use of parking lots because the cars can park themselves.

"You can have the car drop you off and it goes off and takes somebody somewhere else," said Brin, who is pushing the development of the technology at Google. It "can go find somewhere to park really compactly and efficiently. This has the potential to transform our cities and our towns," he said at the Sept. 25 event.

When asked about the hesitancy of law enforcement groups to embrace the concept, Brown said, "Anyone who sees the cars driving will get a little skittish, but they'll get over it," which created laughter in the audience.

Brin said he's been driven around by one of the cars. "I got used to it pretty quickly."

"Our software requires you take control in construction zones," Brin said. "I pretty quickly got sick of that. I said, 'No, you drive.'"

Eventually, the vehicles will open up car travel to many "under-served populations," Brin said, including the blind, the elderly, young people, and even those too intoxicated to drive. Brin said testing had already been done with the blind.

Traffic would be reduced because the cars can be "chained" to each other in traffic, Brin said, able to drive much closer together than slow-reacting human drivers, thus wasting less space on increasingly crowded highways.

The biggest challenge is making the cars fail-safe, Brin said.

"We spend night and day fretting about all sorts of possibilities, and remain optimistic," Brin said.

After several hundred thousand miles with humans helping in certain scenarios, Google's robot car fleet has seen "about 50,000 miles or so without safety critical intervention" by a human driver, Brin said. "But that's not good enough. A self-driving car is going to face far more scrutiny than any human driver would, and appropriately so."

Ultimately, any possible mechanical or electrical failures will be less likely than human errors, Brin said. He mentioned the reliability standards of airplanes as an example of what may be in the cards for such cars.

"I expect self-driving cars are going to be far safer than human-driver cars," Brin said.

"Driving kills 40,000 annually and over 1 million worldwide every year."

And why Google is involving itself in such technology?

"We want to use and create technology to dramatically improve the world. Self-driving cars are a clear example of that, that's why we're doing it," Brin said.

Although, car manufacturers are also testing the technology, "I haven't seen anybody take it as far out and as fully self-driving as we have," Brin said.

While Google doesn't plan to become a car manufacturer, "we had great conversations with a great variety of automakers," Brin said.

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