Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Are Self-Driving Cars Coming Sooner Than We Think?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Are Self-Driving Cars Coming Sooner Than We Think?

Article excerpt

Cars almost always feature in our visions of the future, whether they are flying, talking, or self-driving.

While fully autonomous cars may still be a while off, automakers are steadily removing the human element from the moment-to-moment aspects of driving. As innovation outpaces law, many questions arise about how self-driving cars will function in the existing infrastructure and whether humans are ready for this change.

Mercedes-Benz and Infiniti already include lane-keeping features that make it possible for drivers to take their hands off the wheel on straight stretches of road. Tesla has said that in the next year its Model S sedan will be able to take over some highway driving, and Cadillac will introduce a "Super Cruise" feature to do the same thing.

As more autonomous features are added, however, these cars begin to face legal ambiguity.

"The federal government largely regulates vehicle design, such as 'Does it meet crash safety standards,'" Bryant Walker Smith, a professor of law and engineering at the University of South Carolina, told the New York Times. The states are the ones that have regulated drivers and their behavior, but "now the car is becoming the driver."

Only California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, and the District of Columbia have explicitly legalized autonomous technology, mainly to encourage product testing. In the absence of regulations, automakers are pushing forward, arguing that the law must allow what it does not expressly prohibit.

And until something actually goes wrong with a self-driving car, there is nothing that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration can do to stop automakers from selling them, say experts.

"If someone wants to sell a totally automated vehicle today, you could probably get a court to decide there's nothing N.H.T.S.A. can do about that until it presents an unreasonable risk to safety," said an agency spokesman, Gordon Trowbridge, told the New York Times. …

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