Driverless Toyota Prius

Amidst its ongoing legal battles, Google should be happy about one thing: driverless cars are now legal in Nevada!

Driverless cars are one of Google’s latest hot projects.  At this year’s TED conference, Google showed off its “Googlized Prius” by having it drive around a rooftop parking lot.  Google has been testing these cars since October 2010, without any human or animal injuries.  Currently, there are fifteen engineers working on this project, which is comprised of seven cars — six Prii and an Audi TT.  Google has also hired more than a dozen people, each with a spotless driving record, to sit in the driver’s seat.  So far, the cars have logged 140,000 miles without incident.  The engineers behind this project argue that there are many benefits to driverless cars.  The robots will never get distracted, intoxicated, or sleepy.  They also react faster than humans and have 360 degree perception.  Moreover, driverless cars would double the capacity of roads because the cars could drive more safely while closer together.  The cars are also less likely to crash so they will be built lighter, reducing fuel consumption.  However, there is still work to be done.  The cars have to be much more reliable that other technology — glitches in the cars could take lives.  So far, no major glitches have been found.

Stanford University robotics professor Sebastian Thrun also spoke at the TED conference this year.  He is a project leader in Google’s driverless car effort, and said that nearly all driving accidents are due to human error rather than mistakes by machines.  In his speech, he stated: “Do you realize that we could change the capacity of highways by a factor of two or three if we didn’t rely on human precision on staying in the lane but on robotic precision, and thereby drive a little bit closer together on a little bit narrower lanes and do away with all traffic jams on highways?”

A few weeks ago, Nevada became the first state to authorize driverless cars.  In Assembly Bill 511, Nevada allows its Department of Transportation to draw up rules that would authorize the use of driverless cars.  A driverless car is defined by the bill as using “artificial intelligence, sensors and global positioning system coordinates to drive itself without the active intervention of a human operator.”  The regulations must include safety standards, insurance requirements, and testing sites.  However, these regulations could take a long time to come to fruition because these types of documents have never been created.

Google has acknowledged that driverless cars pose several major legal issues.  Current driving laws all apply to humans and state that humans must be in control of a car at all times.  In the event of an accident, who is liable?  The human being sitting behind the wheel or the software manufacturer?  What if the human is not paying attention because he assumes the robot will drive more safely than he would?  Will humans have to pay attention at all times even if they are not driving in order to avoid liability?  These issues highlight the notion that technology is way ahead of the law.  Bernard Lu, senior staff counsel for the California Department of Motor Vehicles, says that CA’s vehicle code presumes that a human is operating the car.  Google researchers argue that their seven experimental cars are legal right now because a human can override any error.  Lu agrees, but it remains to be seen how the law will adapt once the cars are ready for consumer use.  Driverless cars might actually increase Google’s number of lawsuits!

— Sophia Behnia

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One Response to If Only Cars Could Drive Themselves…

  1. Ben says:

    Great article. I think this is a really interesting issue –technology that works really well and can make our lives so much better, but that will probably face many hurdles and public resistance. I wonder if the law on this issue is fundamentally new or just a matter of adjustment. If the technology is that good, insurance companies might prefer the reduced accident costs and it may just be as simply as drivers signing a contract and assuming liability. My guess is that manufacturers won’t roll out this technology until it’s really solid.