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California motors towards self-driving future

The future of personal transportation has moved just that little bit closer – as long as you live in California and have a drivers’ license.

Legislators in the Golden State have taken a step (a short ride, perhaps, considering the context) towards tomorrow by sending a bill permitting driverless vehicles on public roads throughout California to Governor Jerry Brown last week. As the Silicon Valley Mercury News reported, “If signed by 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.”

Of course, things aren’t as utopian and robot-friendly as the news initially makes it sound. What the bill – SE 1298, introduced by Democratic Senator Alex Padilla and passed almost unanimously (The vote was 74-2 in favor) last week – actually does is somewhat more restrictive than it originally seems. If passed, the bill first requires the DMV to create a new standard for cars with automated driving capability by January 2015, and then charges automakers with ensuring that their driverless vehicles are approved by the state before requiring those planning to ride in the cares to take a new DMV test that will permit them to become “licensed back-up operators” of the vehicles in case of disaster.

In other words, once you cut through the red tape, the driverless car actually requires not only a driver, but one who has had to sit through a completely new test (and, presumably, some form of classes or studying ahead of time in order to prepare for said test) before you can even leave the showroom – Presuming, of course, that any of the cars make it past government inspection and reach the showroom in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, automakers and other corporations exploring the idea of cars that drive themselves are happy with the bill passing the Senate. “We applaud Sen. Padilla and the California Legislature for building a thoughtful framework to enable safe, ongoing testing of the technology, and to anticipate the needs and best interests of California citizens who may own vehicles with self-driving capabilities one day,” read a statement from Google – which is already testing its own self-driving solution on California roads – with the statement also pointing out that self-driving cars “have the potential to significantly increase driving safety.”

So far, that appears to be true from Google’s tests; only one crash has happened during the company’s 300+ tests of its self-driving system, and in that crash, a human was driving. Suddenly, the idea of making humans in the next generation of automobile have to take extra tests makes a little bit more sense.