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When you cover technology, you get to write astoundingly jaded sentences like, “Autonomous cars are nothing new.” And it’s true: researchers have been working on self-driving cars for many years now. In 2007, for instance, Technology Review profiled Junior, a Volkswagen Passat that Stanford researchers planned to enter into DARPA’s Urban Challenge, an autonomous car race that would take place in a simulated urban traffic course. (Junior took second prize, behind Carnegie Mellon’s offering, Boss, a modified Chevy Tahoe).

What is new, however, are the various signs that autonomous cars like Junior could soon be making their way to the mass market. It’s one thing when Stanford researchers buy a VW Passat and tinker with it for a DARPA-sponsored contest. It’s another thing entirely when Volkswagen itself says it’s interested in making semi-autonomous cars, as it recently announced. Under the aegis of the European Union’s HAVEit (Highly Automated Vehicles for Intelligent Transport) project, VW has implemented something called “Temporary Auto Pilot,” or TAP, in which a Passat can use cameras and sensors to control itself at speeds of up to 80 miles per hour.

VW’s own vehicle hacking aims are notably different from those of the Stanford team: VW doesn’t seek to make a fully automated car, but merely one that could run on its own, with driver supervision. (“The driver always retains driving responsibility and is always in control,” Wired quotes VW’s Dr. Jürgen Leohold as saying.) TAP is really just a means of combining certain semi-automated features that we’re already familiar with: lane-keep assist, cruise control, and so on. Still, when you combine all these smart features into one system, you get a car with uncanny intelligence–one that can keep a safe distance from the car ahead, slow before a bend in the road, and observe laws about passing and speeding, says MotorAuthority, which also adds that we might see a production version in a few years.

VW might be just in time, then, to take advantage of new legislation (PDF) that just passed in Nevada. Assembly Bill No. 511 grants the Department of Transportation authority to draft rules and regulations surrounding the testing and eventual use of autonomous cars in the state. Forbes quotes a Stanford researcher (one of those, again!), Ryan Calo, as saying that working out safety and performance standards could “take some serious time: Japan, for instance, has been promising standards for personal robots for years and has yet to release them.” Google, notes PopSci, heavily lobbied in favor of the legislation; the search giant has lofty goals for its own fleet of autonomous vehicles.

We may be years from “years from mass production” of autonomous cars, as the New York Times said in its profile of Google’s efforts. But the writing–both the lines of programmer’s code, and the drafts of legislation–is on the wall.

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