Google has been testing autonomous cars for a while, and they have acheived some impressive milestones, such as navigating San Francisco's notoriously curvy and steep Lombard Street. The technology to create driverless cars is right around the corner, and it could save uncountable lives; by some estimates 90% of traffic accidents are caused by driver error. No driver, no error.
But there's still 10% remaining, and that's where autonomous cars will likely run into trouble. While exitsing laws will have to be rewritten to allow driverless cars - Nevada was the first to do so, in 2011 - litigation will be another matter. In the new issue of Popular Science Jacob Ward writes that a change from driver-operated to driverless cars will necessitate a change from driver liability to manufacturer liability. He compares it to the way that car manufacturers were slow to adopt airbags:
In the 1970s, auto manufacturers hesistated over implementing airbags because of the threat of lawsuits in cases where somone might be injured in spit of the new technology. Over the years, airbags have been endlessly refined. They now account for a variety of passenger sizes and weights and come with detailed warnings about their dangers and limitations. Taking responsibility for every aspect of a moving vehicle, however - from what it sees to what it does - is far more complicated. It could be too much liability for any company to take on.
But there's still hope. The federal government could step in and offer manufacturers special protection from legislation, as they did with vaccine manufacturers in the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act. It's never great to limit corporate liability - despite the irrational beliefs of those who side with big corporations when it comes to tort reform, lawsuits are our only true recourse against corporate malfeasance - but in some cases it could be necessary to get us to the next level.
All of this ignores one major question, though: will people WANT driverless cars? Driving, especially in the United States, remains a pleasurable experience. Yeah, nobody wants to sit in traffic on their way to work, but weekend drives wouldn't be the same if they were being done by a robot.