Nevada paves way to getting robotic cars on the road

Move could be good news for self-driving car backers Google, GM

It looks like self-driving cars may be on the road sooner than most people had thought -- at least in Nevada.

The state passed Bill 511 (PDF document) last week, authorizing executives at the state's Department of Motor Vehicles to begin coming up with a set of rules of the road for autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles.

This is the first step in what could be a lengthy process in getting autonomous cars, which are designed to use artificial intelligence, computer sensors and GPS instead of human drivers, on the nation's roads.

But the move must be seen as good news to companies such as Google and General Motors, along with researchers at institutions such as Stanford, Cornell and Carnegie Mellon University. All of these organizations have been working on autonomous cars.

Just last fall, Google announced that its engineers were working on software for self-driving cars. Google's self-driving car reportedly logged 140,000 miles in California, driving -- with a trained driver and software engineer on board -- around Lake Tahoe, across the Golden Gate Bridge and along the Pacific Coast Highway.

And about six months before that, GM showed off a car dubbed Electric Networked-Vehicle, or EN-V. The two-wheeled, two-seat electric car is designed to be driven either normally or autonomously.

Self-driving cars also have been the focus of high-tech contests sponsored by U.S. government's military research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA. The race pits teams of researchers from universities like Virginia Tech, Stanford and Cornell, against each other as they test their robotic vehicles on a long course.

Work on robotic cars has advanced to the point that one Stanford researcher said developing self-driving cars could help the U.S. auto industry take back its global leadership role, and maybe even save the industry as a whole.

Technology, specifically artificial intelligence, could revolutionize what automobiles are able to do, said Sebastian Thrun, a professor of computer science and director of the artificial intelligence laboratory at Stanford.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at  @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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