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Blind Man Finds Independence in Google Car’s Driver Seat
By Alyssa Newcomb Feb 11, 2016, 12:51 PM ET
The ride Steve Mahan took in one of Google’s self-driving cars is one he will never forget.
Mahan, who is blind, had the chance to sit in the driver’s seat when he and a licensed driver took a ride in one of the vehicles nearly four years ago, but his dream of being able to have more mobility is one step closer to becoming a reality after a federal ruling re-defined what can be classified as a driver.
U.S. officials will now allow the artificial intelligence system responsible for piloting self-driving cars to be considered the driver, according to a letter dated from last week from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Google: What It Learned From 1.7 Million Miles on the Road
Google’s fleet of self-driving cars have traveled more than 1.7 million miles, collecting data about performance and sharing the road with manual drivers.
Along the way, they’ve also racked up a few dings — but by no fault of their own, according to the company.
With more than 20 cars in its fleet constantly being tested with safety drivers in the front seat, Google said the cars have been involved in 11 minor accidents resulting in light damage and no injuries.
“Not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident,” Chris Urmson, lead of Google’s driverless car project, wrote in a Medium post today.
The self-driving cars are driven a total of 10,000 miles per week, mostly on city streets.
While software and sensors can help the cars take action faster than a human driver, Urmson wrote that “sometimes we won’t be able to overcome the realities of speed and distance; sometimes we’ll get hit just waiting for a light to change.”
With 360-degrees of awareness, the self-driving cars are gaining new insights into dangerous driving behaviors, including drifting lanes and red light running — both of which can contribute to accidents.
“We’ll continue to drive thousands of miles so we can all better understand the all too common incidents that cause many of us to dislike day to day driving,” Urmson wrote. “And we’ll continue to work hard on developing a self-driving car that can shoulder this burden for us.”
No Driver, No Problem: How Google’s Self-Driving Car Transforms Travel
No driver, no brakes, no problem?
Not so fast.
Google’s fully autonomous self-driving car could be sharing the road with human drivers in California within the next couple of years, according to a post on the company’s blog.
However, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles must first write the rules of the road for driverless cars.
“Because of what is potentially out there soon, we need to make sure that the regulations are in place that would keep the public safe but would not impede progress,” Bernard Soriano, a spokesman for the DMV, told the Associated Press.
While Google has been experimenting with self-driving cars for years, this vehicle is the first prototype they’ve unveiled that has been built from scratch — and everything about is redefining what makes a car, a car.
Out with the old: steering wheels, brakes and gas pedals. Google’s self-driving car will instead include buttons for stopping and going and a screen that shows the route. Speed for the first prototype is also capped at 25 mph, meaning travelers are going to have to have a little patience.
The two-seater car includes couch-like seating, and an exterior that looks a lot like a cartoon talking car. Google said it won’t be sold publicly, but hopes to have 100 prototypes on public roads in the next year.
Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving car project, said in a blog post that the prototype has been designed for “learning, not luxury.”
When man and machine take the road, side by side, the cars could potentially make the road even safer. The prototype boasts sensors that remove blind spots and are capable of detecting objects more than two football fields away in all directions. And like any other car, the prototype comes equipped with seat belts.
“It was really cool. It was really like a space-age experience!” one woman said in a video posted on Google’s blog.
Another woman and her husband said they were impressed by how the car knew to slow down when taking curves.
Who the Car Could Help
Google emphasized its commitment to partnering with other firms when the prototype was unveiled, and it was unclear when, or if ever, they could hit the mass market or how much they would cost. However, the company points out that having a self-driving car could remove the burden of travel for many.
No need to look for parking at a crowded shopping mall. Instead, users could let their self-driving cars drop them off to run a quick errand. A mother who took a test ride said in the a video that having the car would allow her more time to catch up with her son.
The cars could also allow seniors who might not otherwise be able to drive the chance to enjoy mobility. And drunk driving? Not a problem when your car will drive itself.
Blind Man Tests Google’s Self-Driving Car
The Feb. 4 response from NHTSA gives Google and all other manufacturers approval to design and operate under the interpretation that their artificial intelligence systems qualify as the driver under federal law.
It’s something that could radically change everyday life for Mahan, who lives two miles from the nearest bus stop and relies on the VTA Paratransit Service when his family members are at work.
“It’s like riding with a fabulous driver,” Mahan told ABC News owned station KGO-TV about his ride. “Anybody who spends five minutes out in that traffic will realize that the danger [is] the humans. Personally I can’t wait for the robots to start driving.”
ABC News’ Jeffrey Cook contributed to this report.