Imagine that while fighting through traffic that you could paint your toenails, play the guitar or read a novel — but safely, because the car would be doing all the driving.
We’re not talking about a Jetsons make-believe scenario here: Several companies have autonomous or self-driving cars in the works. (Spoiler alert: the scenario we describe could be years away, and you might have to pay attention enough to grab the wheel.)
Former Gov. Jeb Bush mentioned such cars as an example of technological innovations during a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 15.
“Driverless vehicles will flawlessly move people and products across our highways, never getting lost, never having accidents,” said Bush, a potential Republican 2016 presidential candidate. “Already, a prototype driverless car has traveled more than 300,000 miles in the crowded maze of California streets without a single accident.”
Has a driverless car really traveled 300,000 miles on crowded California streets without a single accident? PolitiFact hit the virtual road to find out.
A ride in a newfangled auto
Several car companies are developing so-called autonomous or self-driving cars operated by computers. But they may not be publicly available for at least a decade, if not longer.
Among the challenges are the legal questions of who faces liability when a driverless car crashes, as well as bringing down the $100,000 price tag for the technology.
But the technology is cool. A recent Forbes story offered a good first-hand account of riding at 65 miles per hour around Silicon Valley in a Lexus equipped with Google’s technology.
When a slow-moving truck merged onto the highway, the Google car hit the brakes on its own; the car also tracked a tailgater and a motorcyclist weaving in traffic.
The article explained that Google engineers gather information about the route and add it to maps before the self-driving takes off.
“When it’s the autonomous vehicle’s turn to drive, it compares the data it is acquiring from all those sensors and cameras to the previously recorded data,” Forbes reported. “That helps it differentiate a pedestrian from a light pole.”
The car has limitations. A Google official said that the car can’t handle heavy rain or snow-covered roads, and engineers are working on how to handle encountering a stalled car or a tire in the middle of the road.
Florida, California and Nevada have all passed laws that allow testers to operate autonomous cars.
In 2012, the Florida Legislature passed a law that requires humans in the cars to intervene if necessary. Testers must submit proof of $5 million in insurance. As of March 21, no testers have registered, said Leslie Palmer, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Bush’s spokeswoman referred us to an August 2012 Google blog: “Our vehicles, of which about a dozen are on the road at any given time, have now completed more than 300,000 miles of testing. They’ve covered a wide range of traffic conditions, and there hasn’t been a single accident under computer control.”
Of those 300,000 miles, Google co-founder Sergey Brin said: “I think we’ve done 50,000 miles now without safety critical intervention. But that’s not good enough … The self-driving car is going to face greater scrutiny than any human would. And I think that’s appropriate.”