Improved road safety promised - autonomous vehicles will be commercially available within a decade says Google

In a step towards the future that Hollywood once promised us but which has largely failed to materialise, Jerry Brown, the Governor of California, has signed a bill that paves the way for self-driving cars to appear on the state’s roads, saying, "Today we're looking at science-fiction becoming tomorrow's reality." One British academic has said that the technology could lead to safer roads.

The BBC reports that the bill, which was drafted by Senator Alex Padilla, was signed at Google’s headquarters. The search engine giant has been testing computer-controlled vehicles for several years, as have manufacturers including Mercedes, General Motors and Ford.

The bill stipulates that the California Department of Motor Vehicles must draft regulations governing use of the vehicles by 2015. Currently, Google is testing the cars in Nevada, which has authorised their use.

A video released by Google in 2010 illustrates how the car works, with plenty of other videos regarding the technology available on YouTube.

While the cars being are able to steer themselves, they will still need a licensed driver to be present at the wheel for safety reasons in case something goes wrong.

According to Google, the cars it is testing have driven a total of 300,000 miles without incident – although there was one crash recorded when a human was driving.

"I think the self-driving car can really dramatically improve the quality of life for everyone," said Google co-founder Sergey Brin said, who believes the cars will be available to buy within ten years.

Governor Brown acknowledged that some people might have qualms about being in a car that is being driven by computer.

"Anyone who gets inside a car and finds out the car is driving will be a little skittish," he said. "But they'll get over it."

Besides being the home of the movies, California is also the birthplace of the multimillion dollar lawsuit, and with an eye to potential court cases a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers commented: "Unfortunately this legislation lacks any provision protecting an automaker whose car is converted to an autonomous operation vehicle without the consent or even knowledge of that auto manufacturer."

Professor Garel Rhys of Professor Garel Rhys says though insurance issues can slow down the extent to which new technology takes hold it’s a question of when, and not if, driverless cars become the dominant form of transport on our roads.

Prof Rhys, the president of Cardiff University’s Centre for Automotive Industry Research said that since most road traffic incidents are the result of driver error, self-driving cars would ultimately make the roads much safer, as well as optimising their performance relative to traffic and thereby saving money on fuel.

“With the driverless car the computer will be doing the driving and it will be driving in an optimum way," Professor Rhys told Wales Online.

“You’ll also probably get a big reduction in accidents because if it’s a computer and the driverless car is in charge there’s absolutely no reason for collisions between cars."

Clearly, cyclists would hope that the computer would also be able to distinguish when someone on two wheels was nearby and take appropriate action.

“There would be a few glitches and you might get the odd accident, but overall accidents and traffic offences [would be much reduced]," continued Professor Rhys, who believes that it may be 20 years before such vehicles become commonplace on British roads.

“It would have delicious implications for the police and the magistrates who’d virtually have nothing to do.”

Earlier this year, Google announced that it had formed a partnership with NASCAR to develop driverless racing cars, with co-founder Sergey Brin saying: “We think the most important thing computers can do in the next decade is to drive cars—and that the most important thing Google Racing can do in the next decade is drive them, if possible, more quickly than anyone else. Or anything else.”

The date of the blog post – 1 April – gave a clue that all was not what it seemed, but the company remains committed to developing driverless vehicles.

One of the movies best known for featuring driverless cars is the 1993 film Demolition Man in which Sylvester Stallone’s character, cryogenically frozen then thawed out in the future, is baffled by the technology when he first encounters it.

Riding in the car alongside the policewoman played by Sandra Bullock, his eyebrows are also raised by a reference to the President Schwarzenegger Memorial Library – although in a case of life nearly imitating art, Arnie would go on to become Governor of Califiornia before being replaced by Jerry Brown.

Being born in Austria means that unless the law changes, there’s no chance of the former Governator getting into the White House – but Demolition Man’s driverless cars, at least, are well on the way.

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.