Google is already testing its autonomous cars on the roads of California, and plenty of other manufacturers are starting to muscle in on the act too. But when they hit the roads, how do you go about policing a city full of self-driven cars?
The New York Times reports that that very question is causing lawyers and government officials to break out in a cold sweat. It's not just working out how the police could pull such a car over, either. How well would those cars interact with normal ones? And how the hell do you insure a car that drives itself in case it crashes?
Add to that the fact that human road users tend to, uh, bend the rules a little now and then, and the problems become more evident. On that topic, Sven A. Beiker, executive director of the centre for Automotive Research at Stanford University, told the New York Times:
"Everybody might be bending the rules a little bit. This is what the researchers are telling me — because the car is so polite it might be sitting at a four-way intersection forever, because no one else is coming to a stop."
Sadly, there isn't an obvious answer to any of the questions. The simple truth is that the federal government doesn't — hell, nobody does — have enough information to know exactly what to do.
In truth, we won't see our roads full of autonomous vehicles until the artificial intelligence involved reaches a point where people are truly convinced that things are safe. That could be anything from five to 20 years away. Fortunately, that gives the powers that be enough time to try and figure out some of the finer points, like insurance and liability, properly.
In the meantime, we can probably expect cars to become gradually more autonomous, all the while still having a proper driver who can at least take over if things go wrong. Brad Templeton, a software designer and a consultant for the Google project, suggested as much to the New York Times. "It won't truly be an autonomous vehicle," he said, "until you instruct it to drive to work and it heads to the beach instead." [New York Times]