A Toyota Prius outfitted by Google to drive itself is about to get that token of independence for which so many teens anxiously wait: a license. Yes, the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles has approved the first-ever license for an autonomous test vehicle.

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On Monday, the state agency revealed a red license plate marked with an infinity symbol for Google’s self-driving Prius and announced plans to formally present the license on May 23. This futuristic, modified hybrid uses GPS, artificial intelligence, cameras, and sensors to navigate the Las Vegas Strip, desert highways, and other public roadways without help from human occupants.

Like a learner’s permit for teenage drivers, however, the license has limits. Two licensed drivers are required to be in the vehicle at all times, including one behind the wheel. Other requirements for the license include proof of at least 10,000 miles traveled in autonomous mode, and the purchase of a $100,000 surety bond (or a cash deposit), which is good for up to five test vehicles.

Google has been testing its driverless cars for years in both California and Nevada, logging more than 250,000 miles with a fleet of about 10 cars. And while Google was the first to apply for the Nevada license, it is not the only company developing auto-pilot technology. According to the Nevada DMV, unnamed automakers have “indicated their desire to test and develop autonomous technology in Nevada in the future.”

General Motors, for example, is testing a system called Super Cruise, which uses radar, ultrasonic sensors, GPS map data, and cameras to detect curves in the road and automate steering, braking, lane-centering, and other functions.

And German automotive supplier Continental Automotive Group announced in March that it had completed a two-week endurance test in Nevada covering more than 6,000 miles of “highly automated driving on public roads.” In the tests, a modified VW Passat relied on a system programmed to switch off and revert to driver control if road markings could not be detected or if bends in the road were deemed too tight. If a driver failed to react, the system would slow the car to a stop.

Google itself does not plan to enter the business of building cars. As the company’s Anthony Levandowski told reporters at the recent SAE World Congress last month in Detroit, “All options are open,” from giving the technology away to working with automotive suppliers or car makers. “We’re trying to figure out which paths make the most sense.”

This type of transportation innovation lies at the intersection of two industries with dramatically different development cycles. In the auto industry, a typical car takes years to go from concept to commercial production. In software, engineers are often urged to launch early (in a matter of weeks or months) and iterate often.

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Driverless cars also exist in something of a legal gray area. Historically, states have been responsible for regulating their drivers, while vehicle design issues have been regulated at the federal level, said Bryant Walker Smith, a resident fellow at the Center for Automotive Research and the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University. “When you have a vehicle design that mimics a driver, it’s not clear who should be taking the lead,” he said in a telephone interview.

Caution and forward thinking are warranted as we shift from what Smith described as “a world where drivers make decisions and are generally held liable for those decisions, to a world where those decisions are being made by cars.” Americans drove nearly 3 trillion miles in 2011. At that scale, Smith said, “If there’s something that can happen, it will. If there’s some bizarre, completely unexpected situation, it will happen.”

Nevada is already looking ahead to a time when manufacturers will make self-driving cars available to the public, noting in its announcement this week that those future cars will receive green plates marked with infinity symbols. “We’re probably not at the point yet where someone could build a car in their garage that could drive itself,” said Smith, “but we could be in the future.”

At this point, the cost of components alone—in the range of $100,000 to $200,000—creates a barrier to such tinkering. And that doesn’t even account for the resources required to create detailed maps of the routes a self-driving car would follow, and write the complex code that allows a car to recognize pedestrians and traffic signals, Smith said.

“For the last 40 years or so, people have said autonomous vehicles were 20 years away,” said Smith. “Now people are saying that they’re 10 years away.” A decade from now, will these futuristic vehicles still be 10 years away? Smith said he has reason to be optimistic. After all, commercially available vehicles already automate certain functions, such as lane departure and object detection; and new trucking technology can monitor and automate certain driving functions for maximum fuel efficiency.

Yet elements of automation here and there are a far cry from a fully driverless car that does not require human supervision. For Smith, when the day comes that an automaker puts “an ad on TV that shows the would-be driver of the vehicle asleep or on her iPad, when they’re willing to make the statement publicly that the driver does not need to pay attention—I think that would be a truly watershed moment.”

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  1. Thomas J keith
    Las vegas
    May 11, 2012, 11:45 am

    Opps it should of said
    ***Because I got a feeling that the People will be afraid to buy one of those cars..

  2. Thomas J keith
    Las Vegas
    May 11, 2012, 11:43 am

    I think it’s a great idea.. But don’t you think it will cause alot of accidents when people look over the driver and passenger side windows and at the rear view and saying what was that? or who is driving that car.. And start panicing and running and speeding like their late for their job interviews or they driving like their late for work. Its neat to have something like this but you need a driver to drive the car not the car drive it self no matter what.. Once you get attention you will see when people finally look into the car and see there is no one in the driver seat even there are two people in the car but not steering it… Then they will panic,run, scream like its the end… Think it over google before you sell these to car dealers and manufactories.. Because I got a feeling peole will be afraid to buy…

  3. Jeff
    May 11, 2012, 10:56 am

    Instead of making better drivers, they prefer to induce people to be even dumber and rob us of the joy of driving.

  4. Helen
    May 11, 2012, 1:00 am

    Also, just as clarification… Raksha, when you say “moving roads” are you referring to something like a “slide-walk”/”moving sidewalk” where individual people would ride to their destination? Or are you referring to a moving road that would transport actual vehicles along it?

  5. Helen
    May 11, 2012, 12:53 am

    Yet planes on autopilot have been standard for ages and no one takes issue with that. (Although I imagine there were similar concerns when it was new.)
    And, as far as laziness goes… yeah, people are lazy sometimes. Then again, if someone is a bad driver or unable to drive safely for one reason or another (injury, intoxication, fatigue, etc.) maybe it’s better to have an algorithm working that out for them.

  6. Tony
    Columbus, Ohio
    May 10, 2012, 10:30 pm

    Did you hear about the newly retired lady that wanted to travel the country? She went to an RV place where the sales guy after pointing out a big rig said “This baby practically drives itself down the road, just set the cruise control and it’s like you’re on autopilot!” She bought the big beast, got on the highway, set the “autopilot” and went to the back of the RV to make a pot of coffee. Needless to say she ended up off the road. She sued and won over a million bucks from the dealership! Unbelieveable, but true story!

  7. Raksha
    May 10, 2012, 1:15 pm

    Just more evidence that people are becoming lazy. A car on auto-pilot is the more dangerous equivilant to having moving roads.

  8. Andrew
    United States
    May 10, 2012, 12:52 pm

    Technology is going to create itself pretty soon.

  9. Josie Garthwaite
    May 10, 2012, 11:15 am

    Hi Odile. For these test vehicles, one person is supposed to be able to grab the wheel if necessary, while the other is free to monitor the route, potential hazards, etc.

  10. Odile
    United States
    May 9, 2012, 3:29 pm

    If “Two licensed drivers are required to be in the vehicle at all times”, it means carpooling becomes compulsory: nice 😉
    Do we know why though?