Driverless cars could be on Arizona roads this year, if Capitol gives green light

2013-01-30T00:00:00Z 2013-01-30T08:48:28Z Driverless cars could be on Arizona roads this year, if Capitol gives green lightHoward Fischer Capitol Media Services Arizona Daily Star
January 30, 2013 12:00 am  • 

PHOENIX - If it sometimes seems like no one is driving that car in front of you that's weaving in and out of traffic, you could soon be right.

State lawmakers are set to debate a proposal Thursday to set standards for "autonomous motor vehicles" on Arizona roads. If approved, driverless cars already in development could be on the road by later this year.

HB 2167 says anyone with a valid driver's license can operate such a vehicle in fully automatic mode. Flip the switch and you're free to read the morning paper on the way to work.

But the proposal by Rep. Jeff Dial, R-Chandler, actually goes further, saying the person who puts the vehicle into autonomous mode is considered the driver "regardless of whether the person is physically present in the motor vehicle."

"Imagine coming to work and you basically get to work, your car drops you off at the front door and … parks itself in the garage," he said. "Or, if you don't have money to afford a car, your car will drop you off there, like a time-share thing," driving itself to pick up the next client.

Lawmakers will get their first crack at the measure when it is heard Thursday in the House Transportation Committee.

The concept of driverless vehicles is not something out of "The Jetsons" or "Total Recall."

Google has been testing its own versions of driverless vehicles for years, using a combination of technology ranging from global positioning systems to LIDAR - light-detecting and ranging - which uses a rotating mirror atop the vehicle to get a three-dimensional image of what is around it.

The company said it has been operating about a dozen of those vehicles for a combined 400,000 hours without a single mishap related to the automation.

But this is more than experimental, as manufacturers already are introducing elements of autonomy.

Audi showed off a self-parking car at this year's Consumer Electronics Show.

And we're not just talking about options already available on several vehicles to help edge into a tight parking space. This vehicle was summoned from a parking garage by phone.

Other elements of autonomy already are built in to some vehicles, like monitoring for lane drift and tugging on the wheel and braking for an unexpected pedestrian.

So Dial figures it's just a matter of time before cars do not need the most unpredictable element of driving: the carbon-based life forms controlling everything from behind the wheel.

But his legislation goes further than similar laws already enacted in California and Nevada, which require that there actually be a human being behind the wheel as an ultimate fail-safe should something go wrong. Dial said he is putting his faith in computerized technology.

"If you look at the number of accidents, the number of people in emergency rooms, people who have died, I think cars are one of the dangerous things out there," he said. He blamed that on human error.

Dial acknowledged the technology used to operate autonomous cars could malfunction. "But right now the safety standards are very high," he said.

Not to mention, any manufacturer who puts an autonomous vehicle on the road is going to make it as safe as possible because of fears of getting sued, he said.

And to guard against carmakers shirking that responsibility, such as Ford failing to make a minor change that would have prevented Pintos from exploding, the ultimate backstop would be the National Transportation Safety Board, he said.

Dial said there are simple answers to practical questions, like how a police officer would pull over a vehicle with no one inside. He said just as a driverless car would be programmed to recognize traffic lights, it could be programmed to pull over when it senses red and blue lights behind it.

What the officer does with the vehicle once it's stopped, however, may be an entirely different issue.

Dial said he is so confident in the technology that he would be willing to be driven to the Capitol by a driverless car - especially if other vehicles around him were similarly computer controlled.

On StarNet: Read more science and technology news at azstarnet.com/science

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