California to Issue Driving Licenses to Robots

The robot must, however, bring along a sane, sober, attentive, insured, licensed human driver to sit behind the wheel

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California to Issue Driving Licenses to Robots
Illustration: Randi Klett

California, eager to retain its role as legal arbiter to the auto world, in July will begin taking applications for driving licenses for self-driving cars. The licenses take effect in September.

The car will merely have to bring along a sane, sober, attentive, insured, licensed human driver to sit behind the wheel and quickly take over if need be. And the license will cost US $150 a pop. And the insurance policy must be for $5 million.

It's almost as if the law were crafted only for those who want to experimentwith robocars. By the way, companies will be allowed to take out 10 licenses apiece. Also, the person sitting behind the wheel must have been suitably trained by the car's manufacturer.

That means nobody will be able to sleep his way to work or sleep off his way back from a night of heavy drinking. But this rule is a first, and a certain amount of initial caution is well founded, certainly more than was the case in the earliest days of the automobile (which itself means "self-driving"). Back then, in some places—as an expert recalled in a book published in 1939—"a man with a red flag had to walk in front of the car, and that might easily have developed into a very strenuous job had not those who drafted the law seen this possibility and fixed the legal speed limit at four miles per hour."

It's all part of a forward-looking package that the California state legislature has stipulated must be turned into law by the end of the year. And what's law today in California often molds what companies and governments do tomorrow.

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This photo shows a parked Land Rover that is plugged into a Tesla charging station.

This vintage Land Rover Defender has been refitted with an electric powertrain, one originally designed for a Tesla.

E.C.D. Automotive Design

From the outside, this Land Rover Defender looks like any other example of the postwar British classic that conquered the African outback—and the automotive world’s heart. But when I step on the accelerator, my own heart jumps. The Defender charges like a lioness on a wildebeest’s scent, slaying 60 miles per hour (almost 100 kilometers per hour) in about 5 seconds. That acceleration is so out of character for this doughty old truck, and so fun, that I’m forced to do it again.

Clearly, that’s no lazy Rover diesel chugging below the hood—or even a Chevrolet V-8, a current go-to engine for vintage-car fans seeking a contemporary edge. This Defender, known for raiding tombs, has raided Tesla’s temple of tech.

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