Self-driving cars have been science fiction for years, but now, automotive engineers are on the cusp of making the fiction a reality, with one major problem: laws.
The advantages of self-driving cars, once the technology is fully developed, are numerous. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), car crashes kill 35,000 people per year in the United States alone. If these self-driving cars reach the sophistication and availability tech researchers hope for, that number would drop considerably.
There are also advantages in time saved, gas mileage, and other human factors, such as drunk driving.
Since self-driving cars are obviously not being used yet, there are not many existing legal precedents regarding the technology. Those tasked with designing the cars must put their heads together to find ways to deal with this problem.
To do this, engineers and idea men hosted a conference called, "We Robot: Getting Down to Business," for the specific purpose of discussing various legal issues.
"The longer it takes for this technology to reach the market, the more people die," said Josh Blackman, law professor at the South Texas College of Law.
One interesting idea is to widen the liability gap to not just self-driving cars, but robots in general. Ryan Calo, in an essay titled "Open Robotics," proposed two important solutions.
The first is to give robotics in general an "open" design, which, as Calo describes in his essay, "has no predetermined function (aside from the general goals of education and research), runs third party open source software, and can be physically altered and extended without compromising performance."Credit: The New York Times
Essentially, this would make robots and, by extension, self-driving cars an extremely universal property, meaning that the concepts are owned by just about anybody and everybody. This would spread any liability to multiple entities so that no one company would refrain from entering the field for fear of legal ramifications.
Calo's other idea is simple: extend selective legal immunity to robot and self-driving car designers. This concept would not be new as it is has already been provided to aviation engineers, firearm manufacturers, and Internet service providers.
Lastly, University of Ottawa law student, Diana Cooper, proposed requiring all robot device owners to purchase insurance, thereby limiting the liability of the manufacturer of the robot or car. Her proposal would also limit certain applications of the robots, such as, in the case of self-driving cars, trying to test the car's abilities unnecessarily.
Of course, in order for other, larger businesses to take part, there needs to be a strong front-runner and Google is filling that niche well.
Google is currently the front-runner in self-driving cars, having already tested prototypes of its autonomous vehicles across 300,000 miles of roadways. There are also other major car manufacturers such as Toyota and BMW that are exploring self-driving cars as well.
"Cars are the second-most dangerous consumer product that's available to be sold, after cigarettes," said Brad Templeton, a consultant who worked with Google recently on making self-driving cars. "We're making it a safer product. Robots won't make the same mistake twice."