California took the fast lane to the future Tuesday when Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law to allow self-driving cars on public roads.
Brown rode to the signing ceremony at Google headquarters in the passenger seat of a vehicle that steered itself, a Prius modified by Google. Company co-founder Sergey Brin and state Sen. Alex Padilla, the Pacoima Democrat who sponsored the bill, were along for the ride. An engineer for Google, Chris Urmson, sat in the driver’s seat, but the car drove itself.
“We’re looking at science fiction becoming tomorrow’s reality,” Brown said just before signing the bill.
Google has been working on self-driving technology since 2010, including testing a fleet of cars along California roadways. The vehicles rely on video cameras, radar sensors, lasers and a database of information collected from manually driven cars to help with navigation, according to the company.
The new law goes into effect next year and establishes safety and performance regulations for testing driverless cars, provided an operator is ready to take control if necessary.
However, it will likely take years before a fully self-driving autonomous vehicle hits the road, industry officials say.
“I think the self-driving car can really dramatically improve the quality of life,” said Brin, who pointed to uses ranging from aiding the blind, to ferrying revelers who drank too much, to simply making better use of commuting time. He added that by driving closer together more safely than human-driven cars, self-driven cars might cut congestion.
But Google has no plans to build its own driverless cars.
“We have had great conversations with a variety of automakers,” he said. “Anything we do is going to be in partnership with the industry.”
The technology has been in the works since the 1950s, when General Motors showed off “dream cars” with features such as autopilot.
Carmakers developing autonomous technologies include BMW, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes, Nissan, Toyotam, Volkswagen and Volvo.
Nevada and Florida have already passed laws allowing self-driving cars.