Google’s Driverless Cars Now Officially Licensed in Nevada

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Nevada DMV / Reuters

Handout photo courtesy of the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles shows a Google self-driven car in Las Vegas, May 1, 2012.

Nevada‘s putting a new spin on the idea of “hands-free” driving this week: The state just issued Google its first license for a car that drives itself. According to the Las Vegas Sun, Nevadans can expect to see the ballyhooed driverless vehicles being tested around the state (as, I imagine, can we all in the not distant future, if things go well here). The vehicles utilize intelligent driving software, proximity sensors and GPS data to figure out how to get from one point to another.

Nevada’s DMV handed Google the very first U.S. license for a driverless vehicle on Monday, following 2011 legislation in the state to allow test-driving of vehicles capable of piloting themselves. The only catch: Two people must be present in the vehicle — one behind the wheel and one in the passenger seat. The 2011 law required Nevada’s DMV to establish regulations for autonomous vehicles, something it did a few months ago in February.

To proceed, companies planning to test driverless vehicles needed to present a detailed test plan, including what type of roads the cars would travel on, as well as spend potential millions on a bond depending on the number of vehicles they wanted to test. It sounds like those hurdles have been cleared, allowing vehicle testing to proceed, and the Sun notes Google has a test fleet of “at least eight vehicles” standing by, including an Audi TT, Lexus RX450h and six Toyota Priuses.

“It’s still a work in progress,” said DMV spokesperson Tom Jacobs, noting that the current system acts on the brakes, accelerator and steering to drive the vehicle. Not to worry, control wonks: If you want to wrestle control back, you don’t have to try much — the vehicles revert to manual control if you tap the brake or turn the wheel, similar to the way modern cars allow you to disable cruise control.

How do you tell if you just passed (or were passed by) a driverless car? Check the license plate — ones issued for driverless cars have a red background with an infinity symbol on the plate’s left side (regular Nevada plates are colored blue-gray). We can thank DMV director Bruce Breslow for that — he says he felt the infinity symbol best showcased a “car of the future.”

So far, it sounds like Google’s driverless cars have mostly taken DMV officials for spins, but they’ve also escorted high profile types like Nevada governor Brian Sandoval, who hopped in one last July, calling his roughly 24 mile trip from Carson City to Washoe Valley and back “amazing.”

While Google may be the most talked about company fiddling with driverless tech, it’s not the only one: General Motors recently revealed it’s been working on a kind of “cruise control plus” version for its Cadillac brand.

In the meantime, let’s not forget about road-legal flying cars. Sure, they don’t drive themselves, but which would you rather take for a spin?