Google posted an amazing video of one of its self-driving cars taking a blind man for a drive. What was remarkable to me was that it’s the first time I’ve ever seen one of these cars in operation with a non-Google employee behind the wheel. It also raised some issues about whether the trip was legal. Yes, says the police department that helped arrange it.
Can Cars Legally Drive Themselves?
The legality of self-driving cars in California, where Google first started testing them, is unclear. When news of the cars first came to light in 2010, the New York Times summarized:
“The technology is ahead of the law in many areas,” said Bernard Lu, senior staff counsel for the California Department of Motor Vehicles. “If you look at the vehicle code, there are dozens of laws pertaining to the driver of a vehicle, and they all presume to have a human being operating the vehicle.”
The Google researchers said they had carefully examined California’s motor vehicle regulations and determined that because a human driver can override any error, the experimental cars are legal. Mr. Lu agreed.
Since then, I’ve never seen any challenge to Google’s cars operating in California. There’s been no reports that any police department has pulled one of the non-driver drivers over for not actually driving the vehicle. Because the drivers are able to ultimately stop the car, that seems to have been deemed them being in control.
The First “User” Of A Google Self-Driving Car
That leads to the video of Steve Mahan sitting behind the wheel of one of these cars, which Google posted yesterday:
You don’t realize until about midway through the video that Mahan is legally blind. Given that he’s blind — and thus not a legally qualified driver — does that make the trip itself illegal?
Google referred me over to Detective Sgt. Troy Hoefling, of the Morgan Hill Police Department, which was involved with the video and test.
Hoefling told me that the trip was legal because there was a licensed driver sitting in the passenger seat who ultimately had control of the car in two ways. There’s an emergency stop button on the dashboard that could have been used, plus the driver has control through a computer hooked into the vehicle itself.
Hoefling also said that the trip went for about a mile to a mile-and-a-half, and that there were police cars in front and behind the car on the journey.
The journey itself had been programmed into the car. That’s why it’s able to do that amazing turn into the fast food restaurant for a taco stop. That’s not something the car would ordinarily know how to do.
Mahan, by the way, used to hold a driver’s license, Hoefling said. Google’s video bills him as “Self-Driving Car User #0000000001,” so I think the distinction of being the first official non-driver driver of a Google self-driving car who doesn’t work for Google falls to him. Chances are there have been others behind the wheel who don’t work for Google, but I’ve never seen reports of these.
Expect More Passengers, Less Non-Driver Drivers
Many non-Googlers have been treated to rides in these cars. For example, last year at the TED conference, I’d say well over one hundred people went for a spin. I was one of them. Here’s what it’s like inside, from a video I shot:
Keep in mind that the video above shows the car going on a closed-course far faster than it would normally operate, as a demonstration of how much control it has.
Will there be more people behind the driver’s wheel? Don’t expect that counter to quickly roll to #0000000002. Google told me:
Our normal tests still involve two engineers in the front and passenger seats, so this test is definitely an exception. That’s why it was coordinated so carefully. Even so, Steve had a great time, and the team was excited to let more people share in his experience.
As for the legality of these cars, last month Nevada became the first state to pass legislation allowing companies to formally apply for permission to test them. California is considering legislation to make things formal, as are Hawaii, Florida and Oklahoma, as NPR covers.
Congrats on the ride, Steve. You looked good eating that taco while the car drove along.