Letting the car do the work

And yes, the proposed legislation would include an exemption from the ban on distracted driving to allow occupants to send text messages while sitting behind the wheel. The two bills are being introduced less than a year after the giant search engine company acknowledged that it was developing cars that could be safely driven without human intervention.

Last year, in response to a reporter’s query about its then-secret research and development programme, Google said it had test-driven robotic hybrid vehicles more than 1,40,000 miles on California roads.

More than 1,000 miles had been driven entirely autonomously at that point; one of the company’s engineers was testing some of the car’s autonomous features on his 50-mile commute from Berkeley to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View.

Testing phase

At the time, Google gave little indication what its commercial intent might be. The company confirmed on Tuesday that it has lobbied on behalf of the legislation, though executives declined to say why they want the robotic cars’ maiden state to be Nevada. Jay Nancarrow, a company spokesman, said the project was still very much in the testing phase.

Google hired David Goldwater, a lobbyist based in Las Vegas, to promote the two measures, which are expected to come to a vote before the Legislature’s session ends in June.

In testimony before the State Assembly, Goldwater argued that the autonomous technology would be safer than human drivers, offer more fuel-efficient cars and promote economic development.

Although safety systems based on artificial intelligence are rapidly making their way into today’s cars, completely autonomous systems raise thorny questions about safety and liability.

Policy makers and regulators have warned that the technology is now advancing so quickly that it is in danger of outstripping existing law, some of which dates back to the era of horse-drawn carriages. New laws will be required, they argue, if autonomous vehicles are to become a reality.

Policy analysts say Nevada is the first state to consider the commercial deployment of a generation of vehicles that may park themselves, perform automatic deliveries or even act as automated taxis on the Las Vegas casino strip.

Google’s fleet of six autonomous Toyota Priuses and an Audi TT are easily identifiable by a distinctive laser range finder mounted on the roof. The cars also have a variety of radar and camera sensors and a trunkful of computer equipment.

Each vehicle is overseen by a driver and a second Google employee who monitors the equipment from the passenger seat. Because of the human oversight, the company has avoided legal action against reckless — or, in this case, driverless — driving.

The project is being guided by the artificial-intelligence researcher Sebastian Thrun, who as a Stanford professor in 2005 led a team of students and engineers that designed the first winning entry in an autonomous vehicle contest organised by the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Google’s autonomous vehicle ambitions hint at an emerging vehicle-industrial complex in Silicon Valley. Mercedes, Volkswagen and other carmakers have laboratories in the region, IBM has a battery development initiative, and the Nummi plant in Fremont, once a joint venture of General Motors and Toyota, has been reopened by Tesla.

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