Recently, Google and Audi have showed off autonomous automobiles that do some, but not all, of the driving for you.
Demonstrations of self-driving cars — as well as government-sponsored competitions — generally take place in empty parking lots or other controlled spaces. Because, of course, they aren't legal on the open road. Or are they?
In fact, the answer is most likely yes — depending on how you define a self-driving car.
Just because something is new doesn't make it illegal. Bryant Walker Smith, who lectures at Stanford University on legal issues concerning vehicle automation, has found no laws that directly prohibit automated vehicles.
We're used to the notion of wild mustangs roaming the plains. But what about wild Ford Mustangs?
That won't quite happen. In a 100-page report on the topic, Smith wrote that the most relevant regulation seems to be the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, which was backed by the United States and other countries to help make some driving practices international. It says only that a car must have a driver who can take control of it.
That may be one of the reasons that car companies don't call their efforts "self-driving" vehicles. Instead, they promote assisted driving.
Annie Lien, who works in strategic product development for Volkswagen on "piloted" driving projects, says most of the practical self-driving technologies we'll see on the roads five years from now won't constitute fully automated vehicles. Drivers will still need to start and stop a car, for example. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, Audi (a division of Volkswagen) showed off a self-parking car that acted on driver's requests as sent through an iPhone app.
"The person still has final say over the machine," Lien says.
Self-driving cars that Audi, Google and others have shown all require people to direct them in some way, which means they would likely be covered by existing law.
The bigger legal issues are in the realm of liability. Who is responsible if a self-driving car gets in an auto accident — the car's owner, the manufacturer or the software developer? Smith raises the questions in his paper, but says that there simply aren't answers yet.
As the momentum for self-driving cars grows, one question is getting little attention: Should they even be legal? And if they are, how will the laws of driving have to adapt? All our rules about driving — from who pays for a speeding ticket to who is liable for an auto accident — are based on having a human behind the wheel. That is going to have to change.
There are some compelling reasons to support self-driving cars. Regular cars are inefficient: the average commuter spends 250 hours a year behind the wheel. They are dangerous. Car crashes are a leading cause of death for Americans ages 4 to 34 and cost some $300 billion a year. Google and other supporters believe that self-driving cars can make driving more efficient and safer by eliminating distracted driving and other human error. Google’s self-driving cars have cameras on the top to look around them and computers to do the driving. Their safety record is impressive so far. In the first 300,000 miles, Google reported that its cars had not had a single accident. Last August, one got into a minor fender bender, but Google said it occurred while someone was manually driving it.
After heavy lobbying and campaign contributions, Google persuaded California and Nevada to enact laws legalizing self-driving cars. The California law breezed through the state legislature — it passed 37-0 in the senate and 74-2 in the assembly — and other states could soon follow. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents big carmakers like GM and Toyota, opposed the California law, fearing it would make it too easy for carmakers and individuals to modify cars to self-drive without the careful protections built in by Google.
As for a truly self-driving car that can get you from one point to another by itself, car enthusiasts will have to remain patient. Lien says we're still many years away — even decades — from that goal as technology behind it is further developed.