Self driving cars - coming to a road near you?

June 10, 2014 12:00 AM

A quick Google News search for "self-driving cars" returns dozens of headlines telling drivers, auto repair franchises and automobile manufacturers that change - big change- may be coming to the way we think about driving.

But can self-driving cars really become a reality? How? Where? And, most importantly, when?

Recent legal changes
On Saturday, The Telegraph reported that ministers in Great Britain are in the process of rewriting the country's Highway Code to allow driverless cars on Britain's roads. According to the Telegraph, the law as currently written is not adequate to deal with the addition of self-driving cars, and needs to be overhauled to "ensure (that) there is a clear and appropriate regime for the testing of driverless cars that supports the world's car companies to come hand test them here." 

Similar changes are taking place in California, where the Department of Motor Vehicles has recently signed off on rules and regulations for the testing of self-driving cars to begin. Legislative overhauls are being enacted as high up as the United Nations Convention on Road Traffic, whose 1968 provisions were amended last month from requiring that "every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle or to guide his animals," to allowing for self-driving cars as long as it "can be overridden or switched off by the driver."

In favor of driverless cars ...
In 2012, California's governor Jerry Brown signed a law allowing for self-driving cars to be introduced to public roads starting in 2015 - if  these vehicles were proven safe. 

The California department motor vehicles currently has 14 pages of provisions and regulations those testing must follow and the cars must meet before they are deemed road-ready. First, cars must be registered with the state as would any regular vehicle. Then, when cars hit the road for testing, the regulations require that a DMV-approved and car company-trained driver be in the passenger seat to take over should anything go wrong. These rules, and others, go into effect Sept. 16th when testing will begin on open roads. 

...And against them
While driverless car companies like Google and state agencies and officials in Great Britain and California appear eager to add self-driving cars to cities and roadways, Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica, California based nonprofit consumer advocacy group, wrote the California DMV asking for deeper scrutiny of the safety and usefulness of self-driving cars before the vehicles are released to the public and permitted on public roads. 

According to the letter written to the  DMV by John Simpson, a privacy project director at Consumer Watchdog, Google's driverless cars, which feature no accelerator, brake or steering wheel, cannot comply with the safety measures put forth by California's DMV. 

"There would be no way for an occupant to take control in an emergency; occupants would be captives of Google's technology, completely at the Internet giant's mercy," Simpson explained.

Corporate Watchdog also takes issue with the amount of time allotted for testing Google's driverless cars. According to Simpson, with testing beginning in September 2014, and California allowing cars on public roads in January 2015, there is less than six months put aside to make sure the cars are fully safe. 

"Consumer Watchdog believes that no public use of an autonomous vehicle should be allowed until the results of at least a year's tests were available and subject to public scrutiny," Simpson wrote. 

The future of roadways and vehicle interactions may be unclear, but with steps being taken towards adapting laws and roadways to self-driving auto traffic, drivers and auto repair technicians should be on the lookout for further changes on the road and in manufacturers' show rooms. 

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