California is now the third state to legalize driverless cars, joining the ranks of Nevada and Florida in paving the way for what might be the new technology’s largest obstacles yet: testing and regulation.
With an estimated 80 percent of all accidents occurring as a result of human error, the safety implications of reducing that variable from the equation are substantial. However, concerns about the fallibility of computers are likely to leave driverless vehicles in need of a human behind the wheel for the foreseeable future.
The new legislation requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to establish safety regulations “as soon as practicable,” with an ultimate deadline of January 2015 at the latest. It also allows manufacturers to immediately begin testing autonomous vehicles on public roadways, provided there’s a driver ready to take over in the event of an emergency. Manufacturers will also have the ability to seek permits from the DMV to start building and selling driverless cars to consumers. Although with many experts conceding, “there’s much work still to be done before driverless cars are proved irrefutably safe and reliable in traffic,” it could be a while before driverless cars are available to the public.
But what exactly are the safety implications of autonomous vehicles?
Autonomous vehicles present an entirely new set of safety issues. The typical accidents resulting from distracted driving, following too close, failing to signal, or driving recklessly should all be avoidable with driverless cars. Unfortunately, as University of Washington assistant professor Ryan Calo notes, there’s a whole new set of safety issues that need to be considered. As an example, Calo cites that a driverless vehicle could be programmed to avoid baby strollers and shopping carts, yet potentially misprioritize the two if put in a situation where it was simultaneously presented with both.
It’s the vast series of unknowns that’s going to provide the biggest hurdle for driverless cars being accepted as a safe means of transportation. Google issued a statement this week saying, “Self-driving cars have the potential to significantly increase driving safety.” And, although this seems undoubtedly true, Calo cautions that even if the new technology proves to be statistically safer, it may face unfair amounts of scrutiny as soon as something goes wrong.
The DMV is now in the difficult position of defining how safe driverless vehicles need to be, laying out guidelines for liability, and regulating a continuously evolving new technology. Still, with Google’s self driving car recently exceeding 300,000 miles without logging an accident, the emerging technology has undeniable potential to make roads safer for everyone. The real challenge is going to be hammering out the logistics and exploring the potential hazards that might not yet be accounted for.
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