California is quietly positioning itself at the leading edge of what could be the biggest revolution in daily travel since the day the buggy was unhitched from the horse.
The self-driving, or autonomous, car, seen by many as a "Jetsons"-like futuristic dream, may be less than a decade from commercial reality, some researchers now say, pushed forward in good part by an unlikely California company - Web giant Google Inc.
"We may be at a historic cusp where driverless cars share the road," said Carroll Lachnit, an editor at car information site Edmunds.com. "The (technological) pieces are all there."
The concept excites many who say the technology will lead to fewer crashes and less wasted commute time. There will be less stop-and-go traffic, they say. Self-driving vehicles won't slow down to gawk at things beside the road, a major cause of congestion.
Intrigued by the idea of eliminating human error from driving, a California legislator has introduced a bill to clarify that driverless cars are street-legal.
Researchers, notably Google, more known for Web search engines than car components, already are producing test cars that drive on their own in traffic on city streets and freeways.
But the push is generating concerns about the reliability of the technology and questions about whether Californians, known for their love of driving, will turn over control of their cars to computers and sensors.
To highlight the technology, Google recently produced a video that follows a seeing-impaired man as he heads out on a taco run in Google's fully autonomous Toyota Prius. He sits in the driver's seat, but only as a passenger, as the car takes him to a Taco Bell drive-through lane.
The on-board computers do the heavy work, gauging where the vehicle is on the road and what's around it, using continuous feeds from the car's cameras, radar, lidar and global positioning systems.
Google officials say they have launched their high-profile effort because they want to improve safety, and because the company believes it has what it takes in computer science know-how to pull it off.
"It's amazing to me that we (even) let humans drive cars," Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said a few years ago. Schmidt's view: If computers were invented before cars, cars already would be self-driven.
The technology has a supporter in state Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained mechanical engineer. Padilla's bill, SB 1298, would make it clear under California law that autonomous vehicles can use the public roads. Similar legislation was passed last year in Nevada and is being considered by several other states.
The Padilla bill says those cars must, for now, have a licensed driver in the driver's seat who can take control of the wheel at any point. It also instructs the CHP and DMV to recommend further safety standards to the state legislature.
"My primary motivation is safety," Padilla said. "Pretty much every accident on the road is due to human error."
He said conversations with researchers have led him to believe consumers could be buying self-driving cars within a decade. Google officials also said in an email to McClatchy Newspapers that much of autonomous technology is "years away, not decades."
Padilla recently rode in Google's car from downtown Sacramento to the airport and came away impressed. All he did, he said, was push a green button on the console.
"If anything, it was a little intimidating how good a driver it was," he said. At one point, as a big rig pulled into the next lane, "I felt myself reaching for the steering wheel to adjust. Before my hand could touch the wheel, the car moved left of center. Even the car knew to give the rig more space."
Others say the cars tend to react very cautiously, and the technology needs refining.
Officials with the Auto Alliance in Washington, D.C., which represents Toyota, Ford, General Motors, BMW and other major automakers, said alliance members are individually exploring autonomous vehicle technology, and have made huge advances in the past decade - much of it already in commercial vehicles.
"Your average vehicle today has more advanced computer work than there was on the Apollo 11 that landed on the moon" in 1969, spokesman Dan Gage said.
Vehicles now employ sensors to parallel park on their own and to warn drivers if they are about to pull into a lane when another car is in the driver's blind spot. Some are equipped with distance control assist, which automatically slows a vehicle when an object is close ahead, and lane departure technology that redirects a car if it begins to veer out of its lane.
Those and future incremental steps may make the ultimate switch-over less than dramatic, said Lachnit of Edmunds.com. "There won't be the shock of the new. Drivers will be ready for them."
Jesse Toprak, vice president of market intelligence with Santa Monica, Calif.-based TrueCar.com, says self-driving cars can be useful, especially in congested traffic.
"You can update your Facebook, whatever you have to do," he said. "It means a part of (commuters') lives becomes more productive and less stressful."
But he predicts a slow adaption rate, saying the probable higher costs of driverless cars and consumer fear of the unknown will limit initial sales to wealthier people who like new technology.
Among those who say they won't switch is car club member and driving enthusiast Shane Cole of El Dorado Hills, Calif.
"I love to drive," Cole said. "If I wanted to just sit, I'd take the bus."
Cole asks what happens when, not if, a car's computer system fails. "My cellphone freezes. The computer shuts down sometimes. Every electronic device is going to fail at some point. Imagine your car wigs out on you on the freeway. It's kind of scary."
There may be bigger issues to resolve.
Toprak and others say autonomous technology would work best if all vehicles were self-driving, and roads are adapted to accommodate them. But that would involve unknown infrastructure expense.
Edmunds' Lachnit said there also is an unresolved legal question. Who's responsible if there is a crash? The vehicle occupant could argue he was not driving. Automakers, she said, are unlikely to move forward with commercial production of the technology until that issue is resolved.
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