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October 1, 2014

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Self-driving robot cars about to hit Nevada highways

In science-fiction movies, robot cars zip through traffic as human passengers work, relax or socialize. The humans usually wear space suits or other futuristic garb to signal a distant time. They live in worlds where robots bring them drinks and hologram bosses can be summoned from nowhere.

Now imagine robot cars rumbling down Interstate 15, next to the Strip. Their passengers wear jeans, sneakers or business suits and speak on iPhones if they are hip, flip phones if they’re a bit behind the times. Nearby signs advertise Las Vegas’ 2012 New Year’s Eve celebration.

Such a scene could be reality in a matter of months. Nevada recently became the first state in the nation to approve a driver’s license that allows people to operate — or not operate — autonomous vehicles, fancy language for cars that drive themselves. Using GPS, radar, lasers, cameras and artificial intelligence, the cars can drive neighborhood streets, highways or winding mountain passes without any human intervention.

Google has been testing the technology in California, where self-driving cars aren’t specifically prohibited by law, and the company lobbied Nevada legislators hard this session to pass the driver’s license bill. Legislators approved it overwhelmingly, with only a few opposing votes.

The Department of Motor Vehicles is working on implementing the law and license. Those familiar with the process said self-driving test cars will take to Nevada roads in a few months. In fact, several local lawmakers have ridden in them. No terrain is off limits, and the vehicles will be unleashed in Las Vegas, on desert highways and elsewhere.

“This is all brand new territory. We’re just getting started on it,” DMV spokesman Kevin Malone said. “The goal is to move forward.”

The cars are still years from mass production. But everyday Nevadans, if able to get their hands on one, could start driving them in less than a year, insiders say. The Sandoval administration is eager to fast-track the licensing process.

Mountain View, Calif.,-based Google logged 140,000 miles of test drives in California but chose to come to Nevada to push for legislation because of the state’s physical landscape and business climate.

“Nevada offers very good geographic opportunities, and the pro-business environment both from a tax and regulatory standpoint offered an opportunity to show what autonomous vehicles can do,” said David Goldwater, a lobbyist who works for Google but said he was not speaking on behalf of the company.

And although the Internet company has been out in front of regulation, it is far from the only entity working on robot car technology. Software companies, vehicle manufacturers and universities all are racing to develop technology they hope will one day become standard.

Robot car advocates argue the vehicles will save gas, time and lives. Computers take the place of humans who make mistakes, get distracted and drive drunk. Sensors carefully maintain the distance between cars so vehicles can drive closer together, cutting down on traffic. Less stop time saves gas and prevents emissions, as does maintaining a steady driving speed.

“Our cars have sensors by which they can magically see everything around them and make decisions about every aspect of driving. It’s the perfect driving mechanism,” Sebastian Thrun, head of the Google project, said at a technology conference this year.

Not everyone agrees. Opponents point out the cars tread into uncharted legal territory. Who is liable if one crashes and there is no human inside? The vehicles also haven’t been proven able to detect another car’s turn signals or children suddenly darting into the road. Skeptics worry that Google might use the technology to track people’s whereabouts and blast them with geographically tailored ads.

Goldwater chooses to see the positive, especially for Nevada. Being at the forefront of the robot car universe could open doors for the state’s struggling economy.

“Nevada has created an environment that could very easily attract the intellectual talents of a number of different companies,” Goldwater said. “The environment we created and getting the law ahead of the technology, it should be very appealing to people who want to invest capital.”

The push could create a boom for engineers and investors. But it also could put another sector of Las Vegans out of work: Tests for virtual valets already have been conducted using autonomous cars. The robot vehicles drop their human passengers off at a desired location, then drive to a nearby garage and settle into a parking space.

It’s a technology profit-hungry casinos are sure to embrace and one that would render flesh-and-blood valets obsolete. But that may be the price of progress. How many science-fiction movies feature valets?

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  1. Sure they might eliminate some valets, but someone has to vacuum the cars. Sounds like a push to me.

  2. "Our cars have sensors by which they can magically see everything around them and make decisions about every aspect of driving. It's the perfect driving mechanism," Sebastian Thrun, head of the Google project, said at a technology conference this year.

    _____________

    Wow, so it's all "magically" done. Somehow that doesn't instill confidence in me.

  3. No, thanks. I'll take my OBD-free self-driven Alfa any day. At least these cars will be easy to pass, given that they should follow the most basic rule of driving that almost every American (human) driver fails to follow, that being "stay right except to pass." Getting lazy, unaware and passive-aggressive drivers into these "cars" and watching them line up in the #2 lane at the precise speed limit will open up the #3 lane, and for that I'm happy.

  4. "The vehicles also haven't been proven able to detect another car's turn signals"

    That's fine, no one in Vegas uses them anyways.

  5. Not only will Valet's be a thing of the past, thousands of cab drivers and delivery drivers will be out of work as well. I'm all for technology and progress, but I don't see alot of upside to all the jobs that these cars will eventually displace.

  6. Just because there is technology to do this doesn't mean we should. We put far too much confidence in computers already and were overloaded with electronic BS nobody needs. An autonomous car,...is exactly what nobody needs. Henry Ford is twisting in his grave.

  7. Please post another article the day before the "robot" cars are on the Las Vegas Highways --- I'll stay home that day.

    Way too dangerous to put these things on the busy roadways here in Vegas.

    If you change lanes in front of those cars quickly they will slam on the brakes.

    I won't trust them.

  8. You say "...hit the road", was that a Freudian slip?

  9. WOW!!!! Things are a changing. First, we were a foot, then horses, bikes, cars, now cars that drive themselves...What next. I wished I could live another 500 years, so that whatever I die from, the doctors and scientist should have a cure for, whatever put me in my grave. Can you imagine, what our world will be like in 500 yrs??? Just a thought.

  10. Why would a person need a special licence issued by the DMV to not operate (drive) one of these cars? It is stated that the car drives itself. Will the DMV issue a special driver's license to these driverless cars?
    And we all know that nothing could go wrong..go wrong..go wrong..go wrong..

  11. It might put an end to those BS citations that some of these officers make up, Heck it might cut some of those officers jobs off. Think about it they wont be needed to make traffic stops on account of illegal lane change or you know the famous you were weaving excuse. Also would you be able to use your cell phone or drink and ride lol.
    Man yeah I can see it now a time when we would have no road rage to cause accidents.

  12. Come to think of it, this is the perfect 21st century American invention: All the benefits of auto mobility with none of the responsibility.

  13. My car drives itself also, almost every other day when I leave PTs

  14. I can see the law suits now. Malfunctioning robot vehicle kills pedestrian, person in another vehicle, person in its vehicle. Especially since we all know how perfectly our vehicles and computers run now without a robot's assistance. Looks like there will be another use for the massive amount of ambulance chasers seen on LV TV commercials every day. It is the mother load they day dream about.

  15. Does this mean I can use my cell phone while the computer drives and I text and not get ticketed?

  16. Wow, I can sleep in my RV to my destination without having to fold myself into a pretzel to get in an Airline seat. Get the RV ready!
    Can Google also put one of their Solar Panels on it so I don't have to stop at those pesky Gas Stations. I love the future!

  17. KillaWatts - Yes. Nevada is unique in that the texting/cell phone ban would not apply to people in autonomous cars. So you can text with impunity. (For that to be true in other states, those states would have to pass special legislation to allow cell phone use.)