Ready for Robo-Cars?

Human error causes 33,000 vehicle accident deaths and 1.2 million car injuries each year. Can a computerized car really eliminate human error and make the roads safer?

Google recently announced that the company is testing self-driving cars – called autonomous cars by Google – on California highways. Initial tests have already demonstrated that self-driving cars are largely workable, eliminating human error while also increasing fuel efficiency and seamless coexisting on the road with conventional vehicles driven by people. Sebastion Thrun, the director of Google’s autonomous car project, announced that autonomous cars had completed 200,000 miles of driving without a single accident.

However, before these cars go into mass production or Google even announces price quotes on cars, questions about legal liability, insurance regulations, and artificial intelligence challenges remain. For example, human drivers can easily recognize a traffic officer telling drivers to take an alternative route due to construction.

And thanks to human instinct, we know that if we see a ball roll out into the middle of a neighborhood street, a child will likely be close behind. Autonomous vehicles lack this level of instinct, reasoning and response.

When was the last time you drove exactly the speed limit? Did you roll through a stop sign this morning on your way to work? Human drivers frequently bend traffic rules, which could lead to frustration for passengers in a polite, law-abiding autonomous vehicle. After all, there’s no need to sit forever at a four-way stop if you’re the only car there. Without the ability to reason, passengers could be a very long (and unnecessary) wait at the stop sign!

Human drivers frequently bend traffic rules, which could lead to frustration for passengers in a polite, law-abiding autonomous vehicle.

Legal liability and insurance regulations may pose an even bigger challenge to autonomous vehicles. Can car manufacturers be held responsible in the event of an accident? What about the cost of car insurance – a system that currently is based partially on driving records? And finally, if a police officer pulls over an autonomous vehicle, who gets the ticket?

The Chief Counsel of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, O. Kevin Vincent, said that the federal government currently does not have enough information to make a determination regarding the regulation of driverless vehicles. And while autonomous cars may still be years away from hitting the mass market, thanks to Google’s lobbying efforts, however, some states are already beginning to legalize these vehicles.

Nevada passed a law last year legalizing driverless vehicles, and similar laws have been introduced in the Florida and Hawaii legislatures. With Google’s home base in Silicon Valley, a California law is reported to be in the works.

Car safety ratings and fuel efficiency are two major factors potential car owners consider before making a purchase. As initial tests indicate, driverless cars would enjoy extremely high car safety ratings, as well as increased fuel efficiency. But would these benefits be enough to convince car owners to chose an automated ride over a self-controlled vehicle? Tell us – would you “drive” an autonomous car?

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