SACRAMENTO -- California on Wednesday could step on the accelerator toward a futuristic highway filled with robot cars as the Legislature considers a bill that would allow driver-less vehicles to hit the road later this decade.
If signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the legislation would shift technology being mastered at places like Google and Stanford from test courses to public roads. Since 99 percent of all traffic and fatal accidents are caused by some form of human error or imperfection, supporters envision a world of computer-controlled cars that would zip around quickly and safely.
SB 1298 from Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, was poised for a vote in the Senate on Wednesday following the Assembly's 74-2 approval on Tuesday. It's among dozens of bills under consideration during a flurry of activity as the Legislature wraps up its session this week.
The bill charges the DMV by January 2015 with determining standards for cars that would essentially operate on auto-pilot, since such technology is so new that the state's vehicle code never mentions driverless cars.
Automakers would have to get their vehicles approved by the state, and then licensed drivers would apply to become back-up operators of approved autonomous cars. The driver would still need to sit behind the wheel in case the robotic functions of the car suddenly fail and a real driver is needed.
It may sound like science fiction. But auto manufacturers like Ford, Audi and BMW are all working to manufacture the world's first "autonomous" vehicles for consumers, and say it's just a matter of time -- perhaps five years from now -- before they'll be ready to hit the market.
Mountain View-based Google has famously showed off its autonomous Prius, which has logged 300,000 miles on California roads and taken a blind man to Taco Bell. The Stanford-Volkswagen innovation lab features autonomous cars like Stanley and Junior, which have entered closed-course racing competitions.
Padilla argues that driverless cars are the next logical extension of automatic features already present on many cars, from cruise control to cars that park themselves.
But significant questions remain, including how much the actual cars will cost. Already, cars with extra gadgets or special operating systems like electric vehicles are far more expensive than regular cars.
There are also long-standing worries that the cars could somehow "crash" like computers do and result in horrific accidents, or that the data compiled by the cars' computers could invade people's privacy.
Auto manufacturers also worry about who will be responsible, legally, if autonomous cars crash and cause a major injury or death, which often result in lawsuits. Still others fear it is premature to develop standards for vehicles that don't yet exist commercially.
"This does not protect adequately the manufacturers for liability concerns,'' said Dan Gage, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which opposes the bill. "That's our main problem."
Still, with a huge market opportunity, the industry supports autonomous cars.
"It's not far away that many of us will be driving autonomous vehicles," Gage said. "We're moving in that direction. That fully autonomous car of the future is not that far away."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/rosenberg17.
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Source: Associate Press, Sacramento Bee