Self-driving cars approved for testing by U.S. Transportation Department

Self-driving cars - Martinson & Beason, P.C.Self-driving cars are the dream for a number of carmakers and other companies, including Google. But before this dream can become a reality, these companies will have to overcome a variety of legal, regulatory, and cultural obstacles.

Legislation, regulation, and even public opinion moves at a much slower pace than technology. Currently, driverless cars in California, Nevada, and Florida are legal. In other states, driverless cars are not technically illegal—but only because the law does not explicitly state that cars even have to have drivers.

Self-driving cars are of concern not just for lawmakers but also for the general public. In a poll conducted by Auto Alliance, a trade group representing carmakers, 81 percent of Americans said “they were concerned that computer hackers could take control of an automated vehicle.”

Little by little, however, makers of self-driving cars are overcoming these obstacles. Just late last month, the U.S. Transportation, which was previously silent on the issue, made its “first formal policy statement” on self-driving vehicles, according to an article in the New York Times.

The department stated that self-driving cars should not be allowed by the states unless they are being used for testing: “Self-driving vehicle technology is not yet at the stage of sophistication or demonstrated safety capability that it should be authorized for use by members of the public for general driving purposes.”

They did allow that semiautonomous features, however, have the potential to save lives. And that is precisely what makers of self-driving cars are arguing. Cars with autonomous features could reduce accidents by removing “human error.” In fact, most cars that are on the market today—or will be soon—are on the autonomous spectrum: new safety features can help you parallel park, keep your vehicle centered in its lane, and slow down if you are approaching the car in front of you too quickly.

Still, policymakers worry that entirely “driverless” cars will remove human judgment along with human error. Will driverless cars ever be sophisticated enough to understand that, given the choice between hitting a shopping cart or a stroller, the car should hit the shopping cart?

It’s a very interesting issue that has the potential to change the way we drive and reduce the more than 30,000 fatalities that occur on our nation’s roads each year.