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State Senate Paves Way For Robocars

Aired 5/22/12 on KPBS News.

A bill approved the California Senate is the first step toward legalizing cars that can drive themselves.

— Cars that drive themselves are sometimes called robocars and they are now are a step closer to taking to the roads in California.

The elaborate electronics that run a robocar.
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Above: The elaborate electronics that run a robocar.

Monday, the California Senate passed a bill that tells the state patrol to establish driverless-car safety standards, which will ultimately lead to their legal use. The bill passed the Senate 37-0.

Driverless cars have spent many years in the test phase. Google Corporation has devoted a lot of time to developing the cars and lobbying for their legal use. State Senator Alex Padilla, author of the Senate bill, favors their use for safety reasons because most accidents are caused by human error.

Padilla has taken a ride in one and he said it seemed like a better driver than he was.

"It probably did a much better job of reacting to cars that cut me off on the freeway, or cars in the lanes next to me encroaching into my space," he said.

Driverless cars are equipped with sensors and computer programs that take the place of the driver. Alex Block is a transportation planner who writes a blog called City Block. He points out there are still limitations to a robocar's sensing ability.

"It can follow traffic lights. It can follow stop signs," said Block. "But if you had a police officer needing to redirect traffic because of an accident and they're sitting there waving, a driver would recognize that. But a (driverless) car is not able to recognize that yet."

Block added that a driverless car is still a car that gets stuck in traffic and needs to be parked, so they won't put mass transit out of business. But once they can operate with absolutely no human assistance, taxi drivers may have to look for other jobs.

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