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Someday soon -- possibly within the next 3 to 5 years, according to predictions of the California Department of Motor Vehicles' chief counsel, Brian Soublet -- autonomous cars will be a regular feature on the streets. Once the dream of geeks and sci-fi fans, this will be everyone's reality and lawmakers are preparing for our brave new world.
Last month, the Department of Transportation announced that it is working on model legislation for autonomous cars within 6 months, and plans to spend $4 billion on auto-pilot projects. The hope is that states will adopt the federal government's as-yet-unformulated model laws and that a uniform approach to self-driving cars will exist nationwide. But right now there is concern that if the government does not get up to speed soon, carmakers will just self-certify the safety of their new rolling computers, taking a "trust me" approach to transportation of the future.
California, For Example
California, more than any other state, is at the forefront of the autonomous car movement, and its lawmakers have been mulling the issue for years. Nonetheless, according to Brian Soublet, chief counsel for the California DMV, the state is about a year away from issuing guidelines.
Soublet told a gathering of American Bar Association lawyers last week that there are a range of safety concerns and potential liability issues. Federal lawmakers have said that the computer and software systems in self-driving cars will be considered "the driver" of a vehicle, according to Wired.
That determination raises very interesting philosophical questions. For his part, Soublet of the California DMV seems wary and concerned about safety. He explained that autonomous cars can, to varying degrees, operate without the active involvement of a driver. At the highest level are vehicles that operate with no driver at all present. But, he added, "we want to see a driver in the vehicle."
Last year, a Google self-driving car being tested on the streets of Silicon Valley was stopped by a cop who thought the car was driving dangerously slow. There was no driver in that vehicle and the officer communicated with the person in control electronically.
The company boasted that people never get stopped for being too slow, as if this was a safety feature. But the occurrence does raise some concerns about a computer's ability to make appropriate judgments. It's one thing to say people are not perfect and another to expect anything less of our tech.
Counsel for Car Accidents
If you or someone you know is injured in an accident with a self-driving car or in an accident with an imperfect human driver, consult with an attorney. Many lawyers consult for free or no fee and will be happy to assess your case.