California legislature approves laws for self-driving cars

google-self-driving-carCalifornia is on its way to becoming the second state to regulate self-driving cars. A new set of laws for the vehicles passed through both houses of the state’s legislature late last week, and is waiting for a signature from Governor Jerry Brown. Autonomous vehicles have been roaming California’s roads for some time, but this is the first time lawmakers have acknowledged their legality.

As with human-controlled cars, the California Department of Motor Vehicles will determine which self-driving cars will be allowed on public roads. Specifically, cars will be required to have a clearly marked, easily used device (perhaps a giant red “off” button) for switching to manual control in an emergency.

California’s approach to Cylonian motoring is similar to Nevada’s. The Silver State was the first to formally legalize self-driving cars; Governor Brian Sandoval signed a bill last year and the state’s DMV has been writing rules since then. So far, Nevada is requiring autonomous prototypes to wear red license plates; the Nevada DMV is also working on licensing procedures for companies that want to test their cars on public roads.

Nevada may have been the first state to start writing laws for self-driving cars, but Google’s robotic fleet has logged over 300,000 miles on California roads. Google says its fleet of Toyota Prius and Lexus RX450h hybrids logged all those miles without a single accident One car was involved in a fender-bender, but Google blamed the human driver.

Google pushed hard for the Nevada legislation, possibly fearing the legal fallout that would occur if one of its cars did crash. Without laws on the books, it’s hard to say who is responsible if a self-driving car goes rogue, although the company that put it on the road would probably be in for some bad P.R.

Now, Google has two states to play in. The company plans to take its self-driving cars on morning commutes in the Bay Area, encountering shifting traffic patterns and construction zones. Google also thinks it can reduce the number of people in each car from two to one.

Google also wants to test self-driving cars on snow-covered roads, and the California-Nevada border features one of the most treacherous around: Donner Pass. Should Google send unmanned cars over the Pass, it won’t have to worry about a 21st century version of the Donner Party.

A Donner Pas robo-rally is unlikely, but with new legislation being passed, it’s not surprising to see Google getting more ambitious in its self-driving experiments. Formally legalizing self-driving cars means the company will never have to answer the question of whether a motor vehicle driven by cameras and software should have been on the road in the first place, although some average citizens may be left wondering.