Far be it from any good Californian to stand in the way of innovation, especially when Google is promoting the concept.
As The Bee's Tony Bizjak reported last week, the company that defines Internet searching, designs cool phones and provides images of your cul-de-sac hopes to enter the brave new world of Google cars autonomous vehicles that can drive without drivers.
The Silicon Valley giant says the cars are years away from use, not decades. But to bring that about, and perhaps to attract partners, the company is seeking legislation that would affirmatively authorize testing and operation of the vehicles.
State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, is carrying a bill that would allow Google and other companies to test and operate such vehicles. Lawmakers should take a good look at this idea, but they shouldn't fall in love with it.
Padilla, an engineer by training, isn't giving Google everything it wants, and that's reasonable.
Google isn't merely seeking legislation that would permit cars that operate on automatic pilot with licensed drivers in the driver's seat who could override the computer in an emergency. The company wants more, in essence drone vehicles that could operate without someone in the driver's seat.
Testing such cars might fine on closed tracks. At the risk of sounding like Luddites, however, operating driveless vehicles is a bit much, for now.
Google is not the only company testing autonomous vehicles. Major automakers are doing the same, and have been installing some technology on recent models. For now, however, automakers are skeptical of the legislation, if not outright opposed.
Oddly, current California law is silent on the issue of autonomous vehicles. As legislative staffers note in their analyses of Padilla's bill, SB 1298, current law doesn't ban autonomous vehicles. Any legislation would impose more restrictions than exist now.
Cars that operate on automatic pilot could solve much that's wrong with freeways. There'd be no gawking, no distracted drivers, no rude gestures and no speeders. Everything would be perfectly efficient, except that nothing is perfect. It's one thing for a computer to crash. It's quite another for a car to crash.
One of the issues is liability. If an autonomous car goes haywire, liability clearly should fall on the manufacturer of technology that promised safe driving, not the auto manufacturer on whose vehicle the technology is installed.
Liability and insurance questions aside, safety is the ultimate issue. If one autonomous vehicle causes serious injury, all manufacturers would suffer the consequences of a public backlash.
Google has successfully pushed similar legislation in Nevada and Florida, which raises the possibility that the company could take its testing to another state or, for that matter, another country where safety laws are lax.
California remains a lucrative market. This state invented the car culture, and all the good and bad that comes with that. We Californians won't give up our wheels any time soon. Google is smart to get involved in the smart car business. Lawmakers should encourage it, but not rush to authorize technology that could go terribly wrong.
With or without drivers, autonomous vehicles should not be at the top of the auto industry's to-do list. They should maintain their focus on keeping actual humans safe, increasing mileage and bringing down the costs of alternative fuel vehicles.