While driving east on Highway 246 from Buellton to grab a quick lunch before our kids got out of school Friday afternoon, I noticed a vehicle traveling westbound with a pillar of gadgets rising from its rooftop. As the vehicle made a left turn into a shopping area, I gazed into the car’s driver side, and immediately realized that this was a vehicle I had read about and seen on television but never in person: A driverless car!
I was completely enthralled. There was nobody in the driver’s seat, in the passenger seat, or in the back seats. I was so excited to see this technological innovation that we (my wife and I and our year-old baby) turned around and headed into the parking lot where this car had turned just 30 seconds earlier. After scanning the lot for that tower of electronics, I was saddened that the car had mysteriously vanished. We returned to Highway 246, heading east again.
As we proceeded down the road about 100 yards, the driverless car suddenly reappeared, as it merged onto 246 heading in the same direction as we were going. I was ecstatic! Upon closer examination, the vehicle had a number of cameras affixed near the top of the pillar, which was attached to the car roof, as well as some other unidentifiable electronics. There was also some type of antenna on the left side of the vehicle. I believe a NAVITEQ sticker was on the car, as well.
I followed as the car drove toward Solvang. At the first stop light in Solvang, the driverless car made a right turn into the town. I was impressed that it was able to stop at the red light, signal, and negotiate a turn smoothly. It even signaled properly prior to turning. I followed the car for a few more blocks, amazed that this technological wonder I thought was a piece of science fiction was actually driving right in front of me.
Eventually, the car continued its way deeper into Solvang, and I turned the opposite direction toward my own destination. We even videotaped the car on my Android to capture this momentous occasion. I later read that Gov. Jerry Brown had just signed a bill last week legalizing driverless cars in California, and I can only imagine that this vehicle navigating the roads of Buellton and Solvang was a result of the successful passage of that legislation, which has only been in a place a few days.
I look forward to watching history being made, as one of the first driverless cars is being driven around Santa Barbara County, paving the way for the commercialization and ultimately the day when this technology is used by everyone — perhaps making every car on the road a driverless one sometime in the near future.
— Noozhawk reader Todd Marmorstein lives in Buellton.