California Legalizes Self-Driving Cars

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Sept. 25 2012 7:13 PM

California Legalizes Self-Driving Cars

California Gov. Jerry Brown, California State Sen. Alex Padilla, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin exit a self-driving car at the Google headquarters on Sept. 25.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, California State Sen. Alex Padilla, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin exit a self-driving car at the Google headquarters in Mountain View on Sept. 25.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

That road trip down Highway 1 in Big Sur poses a dilemma for the human driver: Focus intently on the road ahead and miss the stunning views, or enjoy the scenery and risk hurtling to a grisly demise.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

In theory, self-driving cars solve that problem. You can just kick back and let the computer do the driving, secure in the knowledge that it is intelligent enough to navigate a hairpin but not so intelligent that it can appreciate the rugged beauty of its surroundings.

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California has decided to put that theory to the test, as Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday signed a bill legalizing autonomous vehicles on the state’s roadways. The law allows Google to test out its self-driving car in the state immediately, provided there’s a licensed driver in the driver’s seat to take over if needed, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. (In fact, Google was already testing its cars in the state, on the assumption that it was legal as long as there was no law specifically prohibiting it. But now it’s definitely legal.) And it paves the way for manufacturers to begin selling autonomous cars to consumers by January 2015.

The Chronicle notes, however, that the bill leaves a lot of unanswered questions for the Department of Motor Vehicles to sort out. I’ve posed a few in past blog posts: What happens when the cops pull over a self-driving car? And are autonomous vehicles really going to obey the speed limit? Because that would be annoying. The Chronicle has more:

… Who's responsible if a driverless car causes an accident while in autonomous mode, the manufacturer or the person in the car at the time? How should insurance policies be crafted? How safe is safe enough? How should these vehicles be evaluated against that goal? And how do you create regulations for technology that's still under development?
"The hard work is left to be done by the DMV," said Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at Stanford's Center for Automotive Research.

And then there are the "unknown unknowns," the article continues, such as how an autonomous car would react if presented with a choice between, say, hitting a shopping cart and hitting a stroller with a baby in it. (Wait, isn't that a known unknown?)

Good luck, DMV!

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