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When the robot meets the road

So the world's first privately funded rocket, the SpaceX Dragon, docked with the International Space Station and splashed down on June 1 without a hitch.

While most people won't be taking futuristic transportation into orbit too soon, those in some parts of the country may soon get a taste of futuristic trips around town.

Amid all that excitement last month, not too many people heard about the first license in the country being granted for a driverless car in Nevada.

Zach White

Ubiquitous tech giant Google got a license in the first week of May for a Toyota Prius modified with technology they've developed over the past few years that uses video cameras, radar and lasers along with information from their own massive databases to track pedestrians and other cars to navigate streets from highways to — starting last month — the Vegas Strip.

Google started posting videos a few years ago showing the technology being tested by a driver who turned on the auto-pilot and was subsequently only needed for some kind of emergency.

Nevada was the first state to legalize these vehicles for their streets earlier this year.

A reuters report on the new law mentions similar initiatives heading through the governments of Arizona, Hawaii, Florida and Oklahoma, as well as California, where a unanimous vote on May 21 from the state's Senate sent the law to the Assembly and governor to take effect by January.

California state Sen. Alex Padilla introduced the bill, convinced of this technology's ability to make roads more efficient and safer.

"The vast majority of vehicle accidents are due to human error. Through the use of computers, sensors and other systems, an autonomous vehicle is capable of analyzing the driving environment more quickly and operating the vehicle more safely," Padilla said in March.

An article in Abu Dhabi-based The National describes another car being tested by BMW in Germany that drives itself, but immediately cedes control to the driver at the slightest input. It also has a feature where, in case of an emergency –– stroke, heart attack, loss of consciousness –– the care makes a loud high pitched noise and, if the driver doesn't respond, the car pulls itself gracefully over to the side of the road and calls 911.

An Australian mining company told Indonesia Today of their plan to use 150 driverless Komatsu trucks to haul ore, controlling the trucks from a computer hundreds of miles away.

These new robo-cars would not only be more fuel-efficient and aware of surrounding vehicles, but, here in Montana, could see those damn deer or stray cows way before we could.

Imagine a world with no DUIs, where your designated digital driver takes your floppy drunk body home.

You could even talk or text on your cellphone.

I have heard speculation about the longer-term effects on automotive design this shift would cause, where cars exchange parallel rows of seating for more of a mobile living room design, with all seats facing inward for conversation or games.

Some are even saying the cars might make trains redundant. Interstates would be the new train tracks, with the same cohesion, speed and safety of a bullet train with the added ability to break off and explore independently at any time.

It would allow our asphalt superhighways to take on the best traits of our information superhighway, empowering and aiding individual life while smoothing the traditionally tricky business of collaboration to help everyone get where they want to be.


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