Driverless cars — or autonomous vehicles, as the Department of Motor Vehicles refers to them — have been in the works for years as tech giants including Google, GM, and car manufacturers such as BMW, Ford, and Audi look towards the future of cars that are safer and more energy efficient than the ones currently on the road. But in order to make driverless cars a reality, permits must be issued by states authorizing their testing. The latest state to do so is California, which has officially issued a permit to Audi of America to test driverless vehicles on the roads. The permit coincides with new state regulations that have gone into effect which allow for such testing as per a law signed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2012. California joins Michigan, Nevada, and Florida which also allow car makers to test self-driving cars on public roads.
The benefits of driverless cars are reported to be many and varied: energy efficiency is at the top of the list. TechRepublic quotes Chris Gerdes, program director for the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford, on the realities of how much energy it takes for a modern car to move a person:
If you look at how much energy we use [to] move the person today versus actually moving the car, when you have humans surrounded by a couple of thousands pounds of steel, you’re probably spending on the order of 85% of the energy to move the steel and not to move the person.
But the conversation around driverless cars also naturally incorporates the ethical questions regarding what regulations for the technology should look like, whether they could become hazards on the road, and how they will potentially integrate into the internet of things should they carry wireless connections.
The regulations that just went into effect in California were authored by Democratic Senator Alex Padilla. They govern the testing and use of driverless vehicles on public roads. The California News Wire quotes Padilla on his conviction that the state has the opportunity to introduce a revolutionary technology, as be the leader in autonomous tech:
California is the global leader in autonomous technology. Today this technology takes a bold step forward. Driverless vehicles will revolutionize transportation, reduce traffic accidents and save lives. Establishing safety standards for these vehicles is an essential step in that process. I applaud the efforts of Audi of America, Google and others who are making this technology a reality.
A study released by IHS Automotive reports that — by 2025, as many as 230,000 new autonomous vehicles a year could hit the roads on a global scale, and by 2035, that figure could sky-rocket to 11.8 million. Indeed, the interest has reached global proportions; Chinese search giant Baidu has recently entered into a partnership with BMW to jointly research autonomous car tech.
Clearly, these recent pieces of legislation and permissions from states to test such vehicles are the baby steps that signal the ushering in — at least in the U.S. — of the technology that could shape the future of auto manufacturing.