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Inside Google's Quest To Popularize Self-Driving Cars

Publication Date: 
September 18, 2013
Popular Science
Adam Fisher

CIS/CARS Residential Fellow Bryant Walker Smith's paper "Automated Vehicles Are Probably Legal in the United States" is mentioned in this Popular Science article on Google's quest for self-driving cars. 

Every morning, at about 8 a.m., Anthony Levandowski walks out of his house in Berkeley and folds his six-foot-six-inch frame into the driver’s seat of his white Lexus. Levandowski is embarking on his daily commute to work. It’s the most ordinary, familiar moment there is. Most of us perform this ritual five times a week, 50 weeks out of the year. Levandowski’s commute, however, is decidedly different. He’s got a chauffeur, and it’s a robot.

Levandowski backs out of his suburban driveway in the usual manner. By the time he points his car down the street, it has used its GPS and other sensors to determine its location in the world. On the dashboard, right in front of the windshield, is a low-profile heads-up display. manual, it reads, in sober sans serif font, white on black. But the moment Levandowski enters the freeway ramp near his house, a colorful graphic appears. It’s a schematic view of the road: two solid white vertical lines marking the boundaries of the highway and three dashed lines dividing it into four lanes. The message now reads go to autodrive lane; there are two on the far side of the freeway, shown in green on the schematic. Levandowski’s car and those around him are represented by little white squares. The graphics are reminiscent of Pong. But the game play? Pure Frogger.


Bryant Walker Smith, a civil engineer, lawyer, and Stanford Law School fellow, is the leading expert on how existing law would apply to self-driving cars. His book-length legal analysis has more than 650 footnotes, but the title sums up the situation: “Automated Vehicles Are Probably Legal in the United States.” Probably.

In Smith’s analysis, the legal concept of “driver” goes back to an international agreement called the Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, ratified by Congress in 1950. In those days, many of the world’s drivers still had reins and a whip instead of a wheel and pedals. They drove teams of horses, herds of goats, drifts of sheep. Animals, Smith argues, are autonomous. Thus, in the eyes of the law, an autonomous vehicle is arguably similar to a horse-drawn buggy. And under the Geneva Convention, a basic legal requirement for drivers—whether of animals or of cars—is the same. The driver must have control. Who has control of a driverless car?

For the autonomous vehicle that now drives Levandowski to work, the answer (according to Smith) is logical: the person in the driver’s seat. The Google car doesn’t work without one, as Chauffeur needs to be able to hand back the reins with 10, 20, or maybe even 30 seconds’ notice. In Smith’s analysis, the person behind the wheel satisfies the legal requirement of control—but this theory hasn’t been tested in court.