Tech Week Ahead: Driverless Cars

Colorado state lawmakers are debating a new bill that would allow driverless cars. It's one of a handful of states that have begun to legalize the vehicles. But Laura Sydell tells Robert Siegel that the high tech cars are still at least a decade away from being consumer ready.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

I'm Robert Siegel. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

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SIEGEL: First up, our look ahead at the week's tech news, and we're going to focus on Colorado, where lawmakers will begin debating a bill that would allow driverless cars in the state. NPR's Laura Sydell joins me now to talk about it. And, Laura, Colorado is one of several states to take up legislation on driverless cars. Why now?

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Well, Google has been a leader on this one. And the company actually built a prototype and has been pushing lawmakers around the country to make it possible to legally take these cars on the road. California was the first to take up legislation on this, but we also have Nevada and Florida.

SIEGEL: But aren't we still many years away from a viable driverless car?

SYDELL: In fact, Google has actually said these cars are about a decade away from really being affordable and ready for the average consumer. I should note that some form of driverless car was first predicted in 1940, Robert. However, Google is really putting a lot of energy, research and money into it. So in this instance, we may be closer than we were in 1940.

SIEGEL: Well, why is Google so invested in this?

SYDELL: Good question. There's some speculation that Google actually wants to build cars and get into the car business. But if you ask Google, it says, hey, we're trying to do good for humanity. And the idea of a driverless car may make some of us a little squeamish, i.e., me. The truth is that they may actually be much safer than having you or me behind the wheel. According to most surveys, the vast majority - and I'm talking more than 90 percent of all accidents are caused by human error.

A car driven by a computer will have, shall we say, much better access to all the information about traffic that our brains can't process. So it'll be able to carefully measure how close you are to the car in front of you and behind you. The National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration is actually planning to do more research on this, but the head of the agency, David Strickland, says that these cars hold great promise for reduced crashes.

SIEGEL: Now, would the Colorado law, say, let you actually therefore text and drive at the same time since the car is doing the driving?

SYDELL: Yes.

SIEGEL: Yeah.

SYDELL: Yes. You can do it legally, at least according to The Denver Post. They've reported that the Colorado law would indeed allow you to text while you let your car do the driving. And to be clear, though, you will still have to have a license.

SIEGEL: This could be terrible. Could you watch television while you're driving instead of being limited to radio?

SYDELL: Yeah, you're right. It could be terrible. In fact, I think you could.

SIEGEL: Is Google the only company that's actually working on driverless cars this seriously?

SYDELL: No, no. Actually in the past year, for example, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Audi and Toyota debuted their newest autonomous cars, and the Audi model had the ability to park itself inside a multi-storey garage. But I think what you're going to see is degrees of computer control of our cars. But the truth is, every major auto manufacturer is currently working on some version of a driverless car.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Laura.

SYDELL: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Laura Sydell.

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