PhotoIn issuing new regulations for “driverless cars,” the state of Nevada has made one more step toward being the first U.S. state to allow these automatically guided vehicles on its roadways.

State officials announced earlier this month that Nevada’s Legislative Commission had approved a more detailed set of regulations for driverless car operation, following a prior ruling in 2011.

Although Nevada, a state known for its generous tax laws and laissez-faire business regulation, has made advances toward allowing new driverless cars on its roads, these kinds of vehicles have a long way to go before being sold on the American market.

Google is considered the frontrunner in developing prototypes for this technology, where existing vehicles can be fitted with devices that make them into self-driving cars.

Artificial intelligence

Footage from Google trials shows a Toyota Prius operating independently of a human driver; in a March 2011 post on the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) web site, Sebastian Thrun, director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at Stanford University, details the emergence of this new kind of vehicle, noting the first drafts of the driverless car were part of a U.S. military project called the DARPA Challenge, after which partners including Stanford began to expand on the more primitive designs.

“It’s the perfect driving mechanism.” says Thrun, adding that sensors allow cars to 'see' everything around them in order to operate safely.

But the enthusiasm for this new kind of car is not unanimous; consumer groups and other parties are asking questions about how these new vehicles would work practically on the road, and, for instance, how the new technology would affect America’s current network of state auto insurance systems.

As for claims that driverless cars would allow families to get more transportation out of a single vehicle, some critics of the design are pointing out that updating the public transit systems of American cities and other municipalities might be just as effective, and more efficient.

But how safe?

As for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), officials there have made mixed remarks about the future of the driverless car. After a dust-up over published remarks in The New York Times, NHTSA Chief Counsel Kevin Vincent wrote in a letter to the paper Jan. 30 that, “It is too early for the agency to draw conclusions about the safety or feasibility of these vehicles,” but generally echoed prior comments that officials are “pleased” with the advances of Google and their partners in developing alternatives for the future of the American car.

Overall, NHTSA staffers and safety advocates alike are focused on saving lives by decreasing incidents of distracted driving and otherwise engineering modern vehicles for optimal safety.

There's still a long way to go, but today’s human-driven cars could some day be replaced by state-of-the-art robotic vehicles, the same way that preindustrial team-drawn conveyances were, not so long ago, eclipsed by the “horseless carriage.” That removed one set of horses' derrieres from the streets. The driverless car could remove many more.

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