19 January, 2013

Open the roads for autonomous cars

This has long been considered futuristic, but is here today – the US state of Nevada now formally permits ‘driver-less’ automobiles. Autonomous, or driverless, cars are defined as vehicles that use artificial intelligence, sensors and GPS to operate independently without active human intervention.

The state legislature passed a law in June 2011, by a large majority, to permit autonomous (driver-less) cars on public roads. This considered both simplifying the regulatory bureaucracy for future opportunities, and promoting development of cutting edge innovation and growth policies.

A similar initiative would also do well for Sweden. First, Sweden has a strong base for competing in developing autonomous transportation systems, and second the country has a significant need for transport solutions that can be supplemented this new possibility. And finally, Sweden has expressed an ambition to cut regulatory red tape, even if actual progress in this regard is slow.

However, the Nevada legislation still has not left the field for autonomous cars entirely unregulated. The new law directs the Nevada Department of Transportation to design an appropriate regulatory framework.

Still, Google has already run their fleet of autonomous cars many miles in California, even though the legality has not been entirely clarified. While the State of California has no specific restriction on driverless cars, anyone responsible for such a vehicle can still be held liable for any mishap. In any case, these autonomous cars have shown they are safer than most human drivers.

The Nevada legislation also involved amending a separate law to clearly state that the car owner cannot be considered to be ‘operating’ their vehicle as long as it is operating under approved autonomous control, as defined legally.

The ‘driving’ force behind the Nevada initiative was Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun. He currently guides the Google project to develop autonomous vehicles, and he led the team that won the US DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Grand Challenge to develop the first robotic car that could handle city traffic.

Stefan Fölster