Driving the Future: Self-Driving Cars and Smart Phones That Help You Catch a Bus Are Not as Far-Fetched as You May Think

By Teigen, Anne; Wheet, Alice et al. | State Legislatures, March 2013 | Go to article overview

Driving the Future: Self-Driving Cars and Smart Phones That Help You Catch a Bus Are Not as Far-Fetched as You May Think


Teigen, Anne, Wheet, Alice, Rall, Jaime, State Legislatures


The proliferation of wireless technology has transformed American life--from flipping through an old book to scrolling through an ebook on a tablet, from calling morn for directions to grandma's to finding her with an app on your cell phone.

Technology is also changing the way we move from place to place, bringing not only convenience and safety advances, but also a few privacy questions and safety concerns.

Let Your Car Do the Driving

Most people would rather spend 45 minutes relaxing, listening to music or reading a book than spending time commuting in traffic. What if you could do both? What if you could read a book and wind down after a long day while your car drives itself?. It may be possible in the near future with the development of autonomous, or self-driving, vehicles.

Nevada became the first state to authorize the operation of these vehicles on its roadways in 2011. The law defines an autonomous vehicle as one that "uses artificial intelligence, sensors and global positioning system coordinates to drive itself without the active intervention of a human operator." California and Florida followed Nevada's lead in 2012, while four other states debated, but did not pass, similar legislation.

Nevada issued the first license for an autonomous vehicle to be tested on public roads to Google, the first company to file an application. Google's self-driving prototype has also been successfully tested in California. In addition, the U.S. Department of Defense, auto manufacturers and universities have tested driverless cars with varying degrees of success.

Proponents of these smart cars note that approximately 35,000 highway fatalities annually and 95 percent of automobile accidents are caused at least in part by driver error. California Senator Alex Padilla (D), who sponsored the bill there, is an advocate for the driverless technology. "Autonomous vehicle technology has the potential to reduce traffic accidents and save lives," he says.

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Self-driving cars are designed to remove human error, in part by recognizing objects, other cars and hazards and choosing the best route to reach a destination. In fact, Google's 12 vehicles have completed more than 300,000 miles of testing in a wide range of traffic conditions without a single accident.

Big Questions to Answer

Autonomous vehicles may be the cars of the future but there are plenty of legal roadblocks to pass through. Laws in every state on operating motor vehicles, driving while impaired and insuring cars all make one big assumption--that a human is behind the wheel of a moving vehicle.

In self-driving cars, who's going to be at fault in an accident--the person riding in the car or the developer of the vehicle's software? Who should get the ticket when the police pulls the car over--the rider or the car'?

How will auto insurance premiums work? Who should carry the auto insurance and what should it cover? And what if someone hacks into the car's computer or a virus attacks it or a worm wiggles in?

Then there's distracted driving to consider. Is it acceptable for a person in a car that drives itself to use a cell phone or tablet? What about texting?

Nevada lawmakers answered a couple of these questions when they passed legislation--in the same year they authorized the autonomous cars allowing the use of wireless devices while legally operating a self-driving vehicle. The legislation also prohibited those activities while driving. As this technology spreads, states with distracted driving laws will also have to address these issues.

Get Ready for Reality

"I think you are going to see many states recognize this technology, begin to write rules and regulations to accommodate it, and hopefully do a lot of research," says Florida Senator Jeffrey Brandes (R).

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For now, a few states are paving the way.

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