Google is lobbying to get self-driving cars made legal, according to reports. It appears that the colossal information company is manoeuvring to get its driverless-vehicle technology cleared for ordinary consumer use in Nevada, the US state where many things which would be illegal elsewhere are OK.
The New York Times reports that Google has hired a Vegas-based lobbyist named David Goldwater to promote two measures expected to come before the Nevada legislature within the next two months. One is an amendment to an electric-vehicles bill which would permit licencing and testing of autonomous vehicles, and another is an exemption to distracted-driving laws which would permit the sending of text messages from behind a car's wheel.
The NYT says Google has confirmed that it is lobbying on behalf of the Nevada legislation, but says that its autonomous-vehicles technology - previously trialled in California, though always with a human safety driver ready to take over - is "still very much in the testing phase".
Goldwater argued last month before the State Assembly that autonomous control would be safer than human drivers, would offer better fuel economy and would promote economic development.
Ideas floated for initial deployment could include automated taxis and delivery vehicles, according to the NYT report: in other words full-fat robot vehicles able to carry people who need not exercise any supervision over them.
The implications of this are clear: that it would also be legal to travel in a suitably-equipped private vehicle while drunk, disabled, asleep or otherwise unfit to drive. It would also be possible, perhaps, to send one's own car off on errands - picking up things from shops, perhaps, or dropping the kids off at school. One might, finding oneself in a hostelry a little the worse for wear, summon one's own car from home and tumble into the back seat for a restful snooze or a couple more bracers on the way home - so doing the prospective robo-cab firms out of a lot of business before they'd even got set up.
Google's robocar chief Sebastian Thrun, hired away from Stanford after winning a DARPA robo-car contest, prefers to speak more of fuel savings and sophisticated networked car-sharing and so forth, and - more credibly - of improved safety: even quite unreliable robocar tech would probably cause less death and destruction than human drivers do.
Nonetheless it seems quite likely that less socially-pleasing phenomena would arise. For example: Given the low cost of petrol in the States and the often great difficulty and expense of finding a parking space in some city centres, people might well leave cars circling the block for quite long periods in such areas, leading to greater pollution and congestion.
The big question, of course, is: What does Google get out of all this? Based on past form, one might expect a "free" offering of mapping and routing technology with provisos that Google gets to collect location data on your car and perhaps gets to suck in imagery from your vehicle's cameras, 3D laser-radar mapping sensors etc etc.
Then Google will make money from this information - by directing you to businesses nearby who advertise with them, profiling people's movements en masse etc.
Still, from what details are known so far there would be no need for a robocar to have a network connection at all, certainly not an always-on one; users could always opt to pay for the necessary maps etc. And the ability to safely and legally use one's car after having a few beers - or as if one were wealthy enough to employ a full-time chauffeur - would be pretty nice to have. ®