Are Robotic Cars Safer Drivers Than You?

February 29th, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

Nevada passes rules giving robotic cars special driving permits.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

It seems that the car of the future is here – and it’s about to get its own driver’s license. Earlier this month, the state of Nevada finalized new rules that will make it possible for robotic self-driving cars to secure special driving permits.

On NPR’s “All Things Considered,” reporter Steven Henn chronicled his ride in one of Google’s self-driving cars. “This car has an $80,000 cone-shaped laser mounted on its roof,” Henn reports. “There are radars on the front, back and sides. Detailed maps help it navigate.” Google's fleet of robotic cars has driven more than 200,000 miles over highways and city streets in California and Nevada. But until now, it did the testing in a kind of “legal limbo.” The new state legislature essentially ordered the Department of Motor Vehicles to create a kind of driver's license for these robot cars. Starting March 1, companies will be able to apply to test self-driving cars on Nevada roads.

And while self-driving cars aren’t quite ready for your local dealership, they are ready to be tested on public highways. According to an Associated Press report, companies that want to test self-driving cars will need a bond of $1 million to $3 million, depending on how many cars they want to test. Cars must have two people inside them at all times; one of them must be able to take the controls. “They have to take us out and prove that they can do it,” Bruce Breslow, director of the Nevada DMV, told the AP.

The decision to test on public highways certainly has its opposition. As states like Florida, Oklahoma and Hawaii look into approving similar rules, editorials like this one in the Tampa Bay Observer assert that it’s not safe to experiment on their streets: “This bill is potentially hazardous, even though it requires robot cars to be monitored by humans who can quickly take control. The only reason to test a robot car in the chaos of everyday traffic is to find out what might go wrong. The right places to optimize safety are the test track, parking lot, cow pasture, anywhere but on busy public roads.”

But according to The New York Times, the promise of decreasing deaths due to human error – as well as the potential for robotic vehicles to have greater fuel efficiency, lower emissions and possibly help restore the United States’ primacy in the global automobile industry – is an exciting prospect. A recent symposium on driverless cars sponsored by the Law Review and High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University showed that computerized systems could limit the human error that causes most of the 33,000 deaths and 1.2 million injuries that now occur yearly on the nation’s roads. Yet, as NYT’s John Markoff writes, “Simple questions, like whether the police should have the right to pull over autonomous vehicles, have yet to be answered.”

One marked benefit, explains NPR’s Henn, is that “robots are never distracted. They don’t text or drink or get tired. They see things no human can.” Cars have to be equipped with data collectors (think an airline’s black box) and in Nevada will be identified with red license plates while testing. According to Breslow, operators of driverless cars will be allowed to text and drive, but not drink and drive. "There is no exemption for drinking and driving," he told the AP.

Are you ready for driverless cars to cruise the highways in your state? Weigh in here.