Dream machine: California opens the road to driverless cars

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Fifty years ago "The Jetsons" debuted with the promise of flying cars before the end of the 20th century. More than a decade later, flying cars are still the stuff of cartoons, but driverless cars are on their way.

On Tuesday, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that will allow autonomous vehicles like the ones developed by Google to be road-tested in the state. A licensed driver would still have to sit behind the wheel in case of emergency. With years of testing still ahead, Californians won't see a driverless Toyota Prius or Lexus merging on Highway 5 or cruising the Sonoma Valley until at least 2017.

Driverless cars use radar technology on the front of the vehicle, cameras mounted on top and artificial intelligence to move it safely through every imaginable traffic scenario.

Last year, Google clocked 300,000 miles test-driving its prototypes in Nevada, the only other state where driverless cars can be tested on the road. The lone recorded accident involved a fender-bender in which a human was driving, so the Google engineers know what they're doing.

Once driverless cars are part of the daily traffic flow, they will make long commutes more enjoyable for those who want to get a little work done on the way to the office. There won't be a need for a designated driver to take revelers home after New Year's Eve. Elderly drivers can give up their car keys without giving up independence, and if neither parent can take their high-schooler to soccer practice, the car can do it while the teenager texts safely in the passenger seat.

Still, consumer rights groups are concerned that Google will use the technology to compile even more information about its customers, and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers wonders what it will mean for automaker liability. To paraphrase Bette Davis: Fasten your seat belts -- it's going to be a bumpy ride.

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