Google has been testing autonomous technology on the Toyota Prius. Volkswagen has also made test models.
Google has been testing autonomous technology on the Toyota Prius. Volkswagen has also made test models.

Well, it’s official—we live in the future. Or at least, the future as envisioned by science fiction artists and writers who made us yearn for hovercrafts or homes on other planets is becoming a reality. Technology isn’t quite there yet, but Nevada’s roadways may soon change if autonomous vehicles—self-driving, or driverless, cars—become more common.

A new state law defines autonomous vehicles as “a motor vehicle that uses artificial intelligence, sensors and global positioning system coordinates to drive itself without the active intervention of a human operator.” The law was enacted in 2011.

Driverless cars have been in experimental stages since the 1980s and some commercial cars, like the Ford Fiesta, already have autonomous features—the Fiesta can parallel park by itself. But making them a mainstream option is a project spearheaded by Google, which has been modifying the Toyota Prius hybrid to navigate on the highways and testing it on roads in California.

Last year, the Huffington Post reported that Nevada could be the first state to have autonomous vehicles on its roads by March 2012 when the law takes effect, but seeing them as early as next month seems unlikely. The cars aren’t even commercially available for the public. In any case, Nevada is the first state to write law to allow autonomous vehicles to be used on the road, and the Department of Motor Vehicles requires owners of autonomous vehicles to have a specific type of driver’s license. Several states including Florida and Hawaii are following Nevada’s lead.

“We just want to be the ones to break this technology here in Nevada,” says Scott Magruder, spokesperson for the Nevada Department of Transportation. “It’s something in the future, and we want to be ready, and we’re a state with long roads and low traffic so it’s a good place to test it.”

Studies on driverless cars have suggested several environmental benefits, including fuel efficiency and reduced carbon emissions. By removing human error, like tapping the gas, idling, or driving around while lost, congestion would be reduced because cars could be regulated to maintain a certain speed and distance behind another vehicle. Autonomy would also prevent traffic accidents caused by intoxicated, tired or distracted drivers.

Another benefit of driverless cars is more efficient transport of goods. West Trak in Dayton is already testing driverless trucks to collect data and determine how they can make trucks that can safely carry resources long distances. But autonomous transport vehicles won’t be around for a while.

“People ask us, could you have a truck with like five trailers like a train?” Magruder says. “I think now we’re just trying to see how smaller projects work.”

“AGVs [automatic guided vehicles] are attractive because they provide labor savings, efficiency, and they reduce damage to transported materials,” states a report by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineer.

Although the Google car has logged more than 1 million accident-free miles, consumers are concerned about a driverless car’s ability to respond to uncertain situations like pedestrians, sudden stops by other vehicles, or road work. And while autonomous cars could help individual drivers get around more efficiently and safer, some environmentalists argue that better infrastructure for public transportation options like a subway system should be the priority. Others insist that the only true eco-friendly modes of transportation are cycling and walking.

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