Why California Rules the Robocar Industry

Google has the cars, the test drivers, the engineers, and the money

California almost certainly has more self-driving cars and operators on public roads than the rest of the world. That the state is experiencing an autonomous gold rush should not come as a surprise. For a start, its reliably mild, dry, and sunny climate is perfect for road-testing early generations of vehicles that still balk at snow, fog, and heavy rain.

Neighboring Nevada is similarly meteorologically blessed and began licensing experimental autonomous cars several years ahead of California. But the Golden State has the advantage because it’s also home to Silicon Valley, where everything a prospective driverless car manufacturer needs—software engineers, hardware geeks, roboticists, venture capital—is available in a near-endless supply. Virtually every large technology company—and most mainstream automakers—have offices in the Bay Area.

But the main reason for California’s supremacy in vehicular automation is the presence of a single company. While Google did not invent the self-driving car, it can lay claim to having invented the industry of self-driving cars—purchasing startups, hiring experts, and developing essential mapping and navigation technologies. From the word go, Google has remained one step ahead of the competition. It was the first to test experimental vehicles at scale, the first to move from relatively safe highways to unpredictable city streets, and the first to construct a purpose-built, steering-wheel-free, self-driving prototype. Even today, after the arrival of global carmakers and upstarts like Tesla, Google has around twice as many autonomous vehicles and drivers on California’s roads as everyone else combined.

Of course, California’s dominance in self-driving cars is hardly guaranteed. Mcity, a secure urban testing environment for high-tech cars at the University of Michigan, is hoping to lure traditional Detroit carmakers, and the state already has some of the most industry-friendly regulations. The United Kingdom and France opened their streets to experimental autonomous vehicles earlier this year, while the Chinese tech giant Baidu has been busy testing self-driving cars (developed with BMW) around Beijing and Shanghai.

But California still has a few tricks up its sleeve, such as its own connected and autonomous test center, a 20-square-kilometer former naval weapons site in Concord called GoMentum Station. And if, as some observers suggest, Apple is working on its own high-tech car, California should continue to boast the most roboticized roads in the world well into the future.