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Editorial: A green light for cars that drive themselves

Edmund G. Brown Jr.

Edmund G. Brown Jr.

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Updated: October 29, 2012 6:28AM

Don’t look in the rear-view mirror, but Robo-Car is gaining on you.

On Wednesday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation paving the way for driverless cars in California. It’s the third state to do so.

The “autonomous” cars use radar, lidar, GPS, video cameras and artificial intelligence to cruise the streets unaided by a human. Today’s laws require a licensed driver to ride along, but people are envisioning a day when the vehicles can solo. Think “American Graffiti” without the teenagers.

Suddenly, it doesn’t seem farfetched to imagine occupying ourselves with other tasks while a computerized chauffeur handles the wheel. There’s talk of cars that can brake more quickly, link themselves together to make more efficient use of freeways and drop us off at work and park themselves, or then pick up a different rider. If fewer parking spaces are needed, Chicago might rue its 75-year parking-meter deal.

For all the worry that your car’s digital brain might crash the way your PC does, robo-car enthusiasts point out that the analog version — us — crashes all time by breaking traffic laws, texting, falling asleep, driving under the influence and simply making mistakes. Google, which has two test cars, says they’ve logged 300,000 miles on the road without incident. The only mishap occurred with a human at the wheel.

The sticker price for a robo-car is sure to be hefty, and no one is certain how liability laws will be applied. But automakers already have given us self-parking, lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control, and some auto execs see robo-cars as naturally evolving to the point they’re common in a decade or two. That would be a big plus for people with vision problems or other disabilities.

In the meantime, if you want to text or read on the way to work, there already are vehicles you don’t need to drive. They’re called buses and trains.

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