Google's Driverless Cars Get Green Light

By Amir Khan on May 8, 2012 2:05 PM EDT

Google Driverless Car
Nevada granted Google a license to test its driverless cars on public roads, bringing the cars one step closer to being publically available. (Photo: Reuters)

Nevada granted Google the first U.S. license for driverless cars on Monday, allowing the company to test its autonomous cars on public roads for the first time and bringing driverless cars one step closer to public use.

Previously, Google was able to test the cars only on the highway, but the license gives them permission to take the car down the Las Vegas Strip. The driverless car has driven more than 200,000 miles so far with no accidents, making it just as safe, if not safer, than traditional cars, Nevada DMV Director Bruce Breslow told Fox News.

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"It gets honked at more often because it's being safe," he said.

Google designed the driverless cars to make driving safer and reduce carbon emissions by "fundamentally changing car use," Sebastian Thrun, a Google engineer, said in a 2010 blog post.

"Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to 'see' other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead," Thrun said. "According to the World Health Organization, more than 1.2 million lives are lost every year in road traffic accidents. We believe our technology has the potential to cut that number, perhaps by as much as half."

Google stressed safety above all, saying the cars are never unmanned. If there is a problem, the driver can take control by stepping on the brake or turning the steering wheel. A software engineer is always present as well to ensure the car operates properly.

The new test cars will feature a special red license plate with the infinity symbol and the letters AU, for autonomous vehicle, to signal to other drivers that they are test cars. All driverless cars on the road are currently test cars, but the Nevada DMV intends to make them publicly available as soon as possible.

"I felt using the infinity symbol was the best way to represent the 'car of the future,'" Breslow told CNN. "When there comes a time that vehicle manufacturers market autonomous vehicles to the public, that infinity symbol will appear on a green license plate."

Other states, such as California, are planning similar steps, citing the improved safety record of autonomous cars.

"The vast majority of vehicle accidents are due to human error," California state Sen. Alex Padilla said when he introduced the legislation. "Through the use of computers, sensors and other systems, an autonomous vehicle is capable of analyzing the driving environment more quickly and operating the vehicle more safely."

Breslow said the Las Vegas Strip is the perfect place to test the cars because they are designed to avoid distracted driving.

"When you're on the Strip and there's a huge truck with three scantily clad women on the side, the car only sees a box," he told Fox News.

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