Jan 242012
 
Driverless Car in Bonita Springs

Image by griffithchris via Flickr

The project had achieved 200,000 miles of driving without an accident while cars were under computer control

Even as Google tests its small fleet of self-driving vehicles on California highways, legal scholars and government officials are warning that society has only begun wrestling with the changes that would be required in a system created a century ago to meet the challenge of horseless carriages.

What happens if a police officer wants to pull one of these vehicles over? When it stops at a four-way intersection, would it be too polite to take its turn ahead of aggressive human drivers (or equally polite robots)? What sort of insurance would it need?

These and other implications of what Google calls autonomous vehicles were debated by Silicon Valley technologists, legal scholars and government regulators last week at a daylong symposium sponsored by the Law Review and High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University.

As Google has demonstrated, computerized systems that replace human drivers are now largely workable and could greatly limit human error, which causes most of the 33,000 deaths and 1.2 million injuries that now occur each year on the nation’s roads.

Such vehicles also hold the potential for greater fuel efficiency and lower emissions — and, more broadly, for restoring the United States’ primacy in the global automobile industry.

But questions of legal liability, privacy and insurance regulation have yet to be addressed, and an array of speakers suggested that such challenges might pose far more problems than the technological ones.

Today major automobile makers have already deployed advanced sensor-based safety systems that both assist and in some cases correct driver actions. But Google’s project goes much further, transforming human drivers into passengers and coexisting with conventional vehicles driven by people.

Last month, Sebastian Thrun, director of Google’s autonomous vehicle research program, wrote that the project had achieved 200,000 miles of driving without an accident while cars were under computer control.

Over the last two years, Google and automobile makers have been lobbying for legislative changes to permit autonomous vehicles on the nation’s roads.

Nevada became the first state to legalize driverless vehicles last year, and similar laws have now been introduced before legislatures in Florida and Hawaii. Several participants at the Santa Clara event said a similar bill would soon be introduced in California.

Yet simple questions, like whether the police should have the right to pull over autonomous vehicles, have yet to be answered, said Frank Douma, a research fellow at the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota.

“It’s a 21st-century Fourth Amendment seizure issue,” he said.

The federal government does not have enough information to determine how to regulate driverless technologies, said O. Kevin Vincent, chief counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But he added:

“We think it’s a scary concept for the public. If you have two tons of steel going down the highway at 60 miles an hour a few feet away from two tons of steel going in the exact opposite direction at 60 miles an hour, the public is fully aware of what happens when those two hunks of metal collide and they’re inside one of those hunks of metal. They ought to be petrified of that concept.”

And despite Google’s early success, technological barriers remain. Some trivial tasks for human drivers — like recognizing an officer or safety worker motioning a driver to proceed in an alternate direction — await a breakthrough in artificial intelligence that may not come soon.

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