What's Holding Up Autonomous Cars? You People, That's What

April 18, 2013

If you're itching to get your hands on a self-driving car, there's something you can do to speed up the process: talk to your neighbors.

That's one of the tips gleaned from a panel on "Driver Distraction Regulation and Autonomous Driving", which convened this week at the Society of Automotive Engineers' annual World Congress in Detroit. According to AutoNews, most of the experts on that panel -- including representatives from Honda, Nissan, and the University of Michigan -- agree that the technology to create self-driving vehicles already exists.

We would agree. Many of the systems crucial to autonomous vehicles -- systems like brake-assist, lane-assist, and adaptive cruise control -- can be found on many of today's cars. Vehicle-to-vehicle technology isn't available just yet, but it's evolving rapidly -- and Google's autonomous car has done just fine without it anyway. 

What's lacking is public trust, and frankly, that's unlikely to exist until everyday consumers (a) become aware of autonomous vehicles and (b) become convinced of their reliability.

It's the latter part of that equation that's tricky. Getting the public to believe that their lives aren't in danger when their car starts driving itself down the highway at 70 mph is going to take a little time. And the first time headlines hint of a technical malfunction in a deadly accident, the public backlash is likely to be severe. It may take a decade or more before the majority of consumers become comfortable with the technology. (Though offering benefits like special travel lanes for autonomous vehicles could speed up the process a bit.)

According to Detroit News, the panel at SAE sees autonomous vehicles arriving around 2025. That may seem like an eternity for early adopters, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is already making plans for the debut of self-driving cars. In fact, it's preparing a multi-year research project to draft rules and regulations for autonomous vehicles.

What no one has really addressed yet, it the question of liability in accidents. Because automakers, software engineers, insurance agencies, and lawyers around the globe are eager to know: when autonomous vehicles collide, who's at fault?

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