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Google's Self-Driving Cars Gain Momentum – Should Your State Legalize Them?

The company says its driverless cars are the future, but what are their potential repercussions on local governments and economies?

Google's Self-Driving Cars Gain Momentum – Should Your State Legalize Them?

By Melinda Carstensen

In Google’s latest announcement, the search engine giant has introduced a new model of its self-driving automobile — without the traditional bells and whistles of a car. 

The company has started producing about 100 of the electric-powered vehicles that don’t have steering wheels, gas pedals, brakes and gear shifts, the New York Times reported.

Google’s previous self-driving car had allowed the driver to take over in the event of an emergency, but developers now say that function isn’t practical, as drivers could be sleeping or reading at the wheel if an emergency occurred.

“We saw stuff that made us a little nervous,” Christopher Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving car project, told the Times.

In Google’s new self-driving car, there’s a start button and an emergency stop button that passengers can press.

Urmson announced in April that the previous model, run on a Lexus SUV, had logged 700,000 accident-free miles since 2009, when the project launched in Mountain View, Calif. The new car looks boxier, and passengers can beckon it with a smartphone app. Drivers then can select their destination on the app, and the car will drive there autonomously.

Its technology includes robotics and sensors that detect hundreds of objects at once, including railroad crossing barriers, cyclists and speed limit changes. Those features aim to make up for any potential human error, which contributes to more than 90 percent of traffic accidents.

“A self-driving vehicle can pay attention to all of these things in a way that a human physically can’t — and it never gets tired or distracted,” Urmson said in the April blog post.

While other car companies, like Volvo, BMW and GM, have made strides in the self-driving car space, Google’s model is the first to eliminate the driver entirely. That technology is called Traffic Jam Assist, and it’s at the core of Google’s new driverless car prototype, which maxes out at 25 mph.

Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist who popularized the term “ virtual reality,” extrapolated about self-driving cars in an Edge.org article and said that humans are “terrible drivers.”

"We kill each other in car accidents so frequently,” Lanier said, "that car accidents are a much more serious problem than wars, terrorism, a great many diseases."

Google predicts its technology could reduce the annual 30,000 road fatalities and 2 million injuries in the U.S. by up to 90 percent. Those accidents — plus the road congestion they cause in the 99 biggest urban areas of the country — cost about $300 billion per year, according to a 2011 study by the American Automobile Association.

But as driverless cars become more popular, lawmakers must answer some tough questions, like how DUIs would be addressed with driverless cars, whether drivers would need to be in vehicles while they’re driven, and whether the driver or the technology maker would be liable for damages in the event of a traffic accident.

California, Nevada, Florida, Michigan, and the District of Columbia have addressed driverless car laws, and experts say it’s a matter of time before other states follow suit.

Beyond safety concerns, Lanier also considered how automated cars could affect local economies: “If you look at the labor prospects of the middle classes, a whole lot of middle class people are behind a wheel. There's a whole bunch of cabbies, and truck drivers, et cetera, and we're talking about throwing all of those people out of work … what do all those people do?”

Do you think that self-driving cars are safe and potentially good for the economy? And how would you feel about your local government legalizing them?

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