Google revved up its secret plans for the world’s future last month when it unveiled a self-driving car prototype with no steering wheel or brake pedal. The electric vehicle has two seats, a “start” button, and a red emergency “stop” button, and is made to navigate public roads with no help from the rider. Google plans to build about 100 of the miniature, space-age taxis. With a max speed of 25 mph, they seem most likely to debut at theme parks.
The prototype comes just as the California Department of Motor Vehicles is formally legalizing the technology. The agency issued guidelines in May for manufacturers who want to test autonomous vehicles on public roads, and plans to publish similar rules for citizen drivers (that is, riders) by year-end.
California law often becomes a model for other states, so the DMV rules are a signal: Regulators are taking autonomous vehicles seriously. The technology is moving from geek daydreams to highways.
Nevada, Michigan, Florida, and the District of Columbia have also legalized testing of self-driving cars. The cars might be considered legal by default elsewhere, if no explicit bans exist. Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., has already been testing self-driving technology in its home state for several years.
In a video on the company’s website, a legally blind man plops behind the wheel of a self-driving car and takes a ride—hands-free and feet-free—to a Taco Bell drive-thru. The car, a modified blue Toyota Prius, is jiggered with wires, radars, and a spinning laser system on the roof that constantly scans surroundings. Google has logged 700,000 miles of autonomous driving.
Despite the progress, fully autonomous cars still have trouble navigating scenarios that seem simple to humans but complex to computers: Although Google’s cars can recognize cyclist hand signals and slow down when approaching potholes, they get confused in snow and can’t spot a squirrel on the pavement.
Most manufacturers have been adding semiautonomous features to new cars gradually. New vehicles from Volvo, BMW, and others can parallel park themselves, adjust steering if the car drifts out of lane, or detect if a pedestrian steps into the road. These cars aren’t fully autonomous because they rely on a driver in normal conditions, but their safety features could soon become standard. Nissan hopes to sell fully autonomous cars by 2020.
With around 90 percent of traffic accidents caused by human error, the investment in autonomous technology makes sense. Human drivers don’t always stop in time when a child runs into the street. A laser-guided car might.
The best way to avoid prison time for hacking may be to help catch other hackers. Hector Xavier Monsegur had faced up to 26 years in prison for working with the hackers group Anonymous and posting a fake story about rapper Tupac Shakur to the PBS NewsHour website. But after FBI agents confronted him three years ago, the 30-year-old New Yorker became a prolific informant for the agency. On May 27 he walked free, ultimately serving only seven months’ jail time after a federal judge praised his “truly extraordinary cooperation.” A fellow hacker Monsegur helped bag, Jeremy Hammond, is serving 10 years. —D.J.D.