Driverless cars have come a long way in recent years, and the technology needed to make the concept a reality is nearly mature. Legal issues, not science, present one of the largest roadblocks between today and a driverless future.
Many car manufacturers, universities, and technology firms have experimented with the development of driverless cars since the late 2000s. While driverless cars are not yet for sale, the technology is further long than many people would suspect. Google's driverless cars have managed to drive hundreds of thousands of miles without crashing. Google has lobbied for permission to drive their cars on open roads because developing the technology is only the first step of making driverless cars a reality.
Driverless cars are expected to save thousands of lives each year. The vast majority of vehicle accidents, 90 percent, are the result of human error. Driverless cars will appear on local roads within the next few decades, but they raise all kinds of legal concerns. If a driverless car gets into a crash, who is at fault?
An Arizona legislator attempted to address this issue by introducing a bill last year that would adjust state law to cover driverless cars.
"After I introduced the bill, then suddenly all the insurance companies started approaching me with the questions of the liability," Jeff Dial told NPR. "The more you deal with this issue, the more the issue grows and grows."
Nevada became the first state to legalize driverless cars in the summer of 2011. Since then, Florida and California have also permitted the vehicles. Colorado debated a bill that would allow driverless cars just last month, but it was ultimately shelved.
Drivers still need a driver's license to operate driverless cars, but the technology grants a driver more freedom than traditional driving ever has. There's the possibility that drivers would no longer be limited to the radio and could watch television instead. The Colorado bill would have allowed drivers to text behind the wheel, granted that the car was doing the driving.
Convenience aside, human nature remains a strong reason why driverless cars have not taken off sooner. Many car companies have introduced adaptive cruise control, which allows cars to drive at a safe distance without requiring input from the driver. A driver has to fight the urge to manually apply the brakes as they approach the rear of the car ahead. How will drivers adjust to traffic congestion where even a small number of the cars on the road are self-driven?
Car companies have created cars with lane-departure warnings and lane-change warnings and are experimenting with the idea of cars that can park themselves. The technology for driverless cars will have matured long before humanity is ready to let go of control of the wheel.