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June 1, 2014

How Google got states to legalize driverless cars

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — About four years ago, the Google team trying to develop cars driven by computers — not people — concluded that sooner than later, the technology would be ready for the masses. There was one big problem: No state had even considered whether driverless cars should be legal.

And yet this week, Google said it wants to give Californians access to a small fleet of prototypes it will make without a steering wheel or pedals.

The plan is possible because, by this time next year, driverless cars will be legal in the tech giant’s home state.

And for that, Google can thank Google, and an unorthodox lobbying campaign to shape the road rules of the future in car-obsessed California — and maybe even the rest of the nation — that began with a game-changing conversation in Las Vegas.

The campaign was based on a principle that businesses rarely embrace: ask for regulation.

The journey to a law in California began in January 2011 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where Nevada legislator-turned-lobbyist David Goldwater began chatting up Anthony Levandowski, one of the self-driving car project’s leaders. When talk drifted to the legal hurdles, Goldwater suggested that rather than entering California’s potentially bruising political process, Google should start small.

Here, in neighboring Nevada, he said, where the Legislature famously has an impulse to regulate lightly.

It made sense to Google, which hired Goldwater.

“The good thing about laws is if they don’t exist and you want one — or if they exist and you don’t like them — you can change them,” Levandowski told students at the University of California, Berkeley in December. “And so in Nevada, we did our first bill.”

Up to that point, Google had quietly sent early versions of the car, with a “safety driver” behind the wheel, more than 100,000 miles in California. Eventually, government would catch up, just as stop signs began appearing well after cars rolled onto America’s roads a century ago.

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