Sunday, June 26, 2011 | 2 a.m.
In science-fiction movies, robot cars zip through traffic as human passengers work, relax or socialize. The humans usually wear space suits or other futuristic garb to signal a distant time. They live in worlds where robots bring them drinks and hologram bosses can be summoned from nowhere.
Now imagine robot cars rumbling down Interstate 15, next to the Strip. Their passengers wear jeans, sneakers or business suits and speak on iPhones if they are hip, flip phones if they’re a bit behind the times. Nearby signs advertise Las Vegas’ 2012 New Year’s Eve celebration.
Such a scene could be reality in a matter of months. Nevada recently became the first state in the nation to approve a driver’s license that allows people to operate — or not operate — autonomous vehicles, fancy language for cars that drive themselves. Using GPS, radar, lasers, cameras and artificial intelligence, the cars can drive neighborhood streets, highways or winding mountain passes without any human intervention.
Google has been testing the technology in California, where self-driving cars aren’t specifically prohibited by law, and the company lobbied Nevada legislators hard this session to pass the driver’s license bill. Legislators approved it overwhelmingly, with only a few opposing votes.
The Department of Motor Vehicles is working on implementing the law and license. Those familiar with the process said self-driving test cars will take to Nevada roads in a few months. In fact, several local lawmakers have ridden in them. No terrain is off limits, and the vehicles will be unleashed in Las Vegas, on desert highways and elsewhere.
“This is all brand new territory. We’re just getting started on it,” DMV spokesman Kevin Malone said. “The goal is to move forward.”
The cars are still years from mass production. But everyday Nevadans, if able to get their hands on one, could start driving them in less than a year, insiders say. The Sandoval administration is eager to fast-track the licensing process.
Mountain View, Calif.,-based Google logged 140,000 miles of test drives in California but chose to come to Nevada to push for legislation because of the state’s physical landscape and business climate.
“Nevada offers very good geographic opportunities, and the pro-business environment both from a tax and regulatory standpoint offered an opportunity to show what autonomous vehicles can do,” said David Goldwater, a lobbyist who works for Google but said he was not speaking on behalf of the company.
And although the Internet company has been out in front of regulation, it is far from the only entity working on robot car technology. Software companies, vehicle manufacturers and universities all are racing to develop technology they hope will one day become standard.
Robot car advocates argue the vehicles will save gas, time and lives. Computers take the place of humans who make mistakes, get distracted and drive drunk. Sensors carefully maintain the distance between cars so vehicles can drive closer together, cutting down on traffic. Less stop time saves gas and prevents emissions, as does maintaining a steady driving speed.
“Our cars have sensors by which they can magically see everything around them and make decisions about every aspect of driving. It’s the perfect driving mechanism,” Sebastian Thrun, head of the Google project, said at a technology conference this year.
Not everyone agrees. Opponents point out the cars tread into uncharted legal territory. Who is liable if one crashes and there is no human inside? The vehicles also haven’t been proven able to detect another car’s turn signals or children suddenly darting into the road. Skeptics worry that Google might use the technology to track people’s whereabouts and blast them with geographically tailored ads.
Goldwater chooses to see the positive, especially for Nevada. Being at the forefront of the robot car universe could open doors for the state’s struggling economy.
“Nevada has created an environment that could very easily attract the intellectual talents of a number of different companies,” Goldwater said. “The environment we created and getting the law ahead of the technology, it should be very appealing to people who want to invest capital.”
The push could create a boom for engineers and investors. But it also could put another sector of Las Vegans out of work: Tests for virtual valets already have been conducted using autonomous cars. The robot vehicles drop their human passengers off at a desired location, then drive to a nearby garage and settle into a parking space.
It’s a technology profit-hungry casinos are sure to embrace and one that would render flesh-and-blood valets obsolete. But that may be the price of progress. How many science-fiction movies feature valets?