Google made headlines earlier this week when Nevada issued the first drivers license for a self-driving car. The next day, the car was spotted taking a victory lap in Washington, D.C.
For years, Google has been working to perfect a driverless car that uses video cameras, radar sensors, Google Maps, and a laser range finder to navigate traffic. Apparently, the company has all-but-perfected its fleet of Toyota Prius hybrids—Monday, Nevada's Department of Motor Vehicles approved Google's "car of the future" to operate on state roads.
Experts have speculated that Google may have been taking lawmakers for a ride in the Prius, which was spotted Tuesday in Northwest and Northeast D.C., but officials for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology said they had no knowledge of Google's plans. Several E-mails to Google were unreturned.
"If I was to guess, they would be giving free rides to impress policymakers," Anthony Park, a research scientist and writer for Driverless Car HQ, a site that follows the industry, wrote in an E-mail.
Wooing lawmakers would be nothing new—the company reportedly spent $5 million lobbying Congress between January and March, more than Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft combined.
The D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles said in a tweet that Google didn't inform them of the company's plans to operate the car in the District. Like most states, D.C. law allows out-of-state drivers to operate vehicles.
Jay Nancarrow, a spokesperson for Google, told the New York Times earlier this week that the car is still in the testing phase—but it already may a better than most people behind the wheel of a car. Google has logged hundreds of thousands of miles, and the only crash, in August 2011, was caused while the car was in manual mode.
Peter Stone, a computer scientist who studies driverless cars and traffic technology at the University of Texas at Austin says that making a car that drives safer than humans isn't a "high bar to clear."
Automated cars, he says, "won't drive drunk, suffer from road rage, or text while driving."
Google spent nearly a year getting its car approved for roads in Nevada. Florida, Hawaii, Oklahoma, and California are also said to be considering licensing driverless cars. According to the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles, other companies and researchers have expressed interest in testing driverless cars in the state.
A person familiar with the process in Nevada says getting permission to test in live road conditions was one of the hardest parts to get approved. Once it was on roads, it was a matter of proving to the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles that the car would be able to follow all the rules of the road, regardless of whether a human monitor was present or traffic conditions.
"Closed track testing doesn't do you any good," he says. "You have to be on the real road, you have to account for traffic conditions. There's no simulation for that."
The car underwent a "babysitting period" to gain permission to drive on the streets. Initially, there had to be Google officials monitoring the car's operations at all times.
Although the price of driverless technology needs to monumentally drop before automated cars are economically viable, experts envision a future of safer roads, and the Google car's trip to Washington might inspire lawmakers and state officials to speed up the process.
"People are just starting to wrap their heads around it … it's going to happen," Stone says. "Soon."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org