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Let The Robot Drive: The Autonomous Car Of The Future Is Here

Publication Date: 
January 20, 2012
Source: 
Wired
Author: 
Tom Vanderbilt

Director of Privacy and Robotics at the Center on Internet and Society Ryan Calo spoke with Tom Vanderbilt of Wired on the legal ramifications that may result from quasi-autonomous vehicles

The object, vaguely pink, sits on the shoulder of the freeway, slowly shimmering into view. Is it roadkill? A weird kind of sagebrush? No, wait, it’s … a puffy chunk of foam insulation! “The laser almost certainly got returns off of it,” says Chris Urmson, sitting behind the wheel of the Prius he is not driving. A note is made (FOD: foreign object or debris, lane 1) as we drive past, to help our computerized car understand the curious flotsam it has just seen.

It’s a Monday, midday, and we are heading north on California Highway 85 in a Google autonomous vehicle. In October 2010, when The New York Times reported that Google had built a fleet of self-driving cars that had already collectively traversed some 140,000 miles of California asphalt, it came as a shock, a terrestrial Sputnik. Now the cars, with their whirling rooftop laser arrays, are as familiar in the Bay Area as the company’s camera-crowned Street View vehicles. Indeed, the two are often confused, which is presumably why the words “self-driving car” have recently been plastered on this one’s driver-side door.

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Beyond bureaucracy, there are deeper legal questions. Ryan Calo, director for privacy and robotics at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, which is studying the legal framework for quasi-autonomous vehicles, notes how active the liability landscape already is when it comes to cars’ safety features. “People sue over all kinds of stuff. People sue because some feature that was supposed to protect them didn’t. People sue because their car didn’t have a blind-spot warning when other cars at the same price point did.” Imagine the complexity we’ll have when cars drive themselves. Who will be responsible for their operation—the car companies or the drivers? What happens, for example, when a highway patrol officer pulls over a self-driving car? Who gets the ticket?