First formal policy statement from the US Transportation Department on self driving cars

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Ryan Calo, law professor and co-founder of the ‘Legal Aspects of Autonomous Driving Centre’ at Stanford, captured the issue when he commented “The first time that a driverless vehicle swerves to avoid a shopping cart and hits a stroller, someone’s going to write, ‘robot car kills baby to save groceries’. It’s those kinds of reasons you want to make sure this stuff is fully tested.” On the other hand, it is difficult to write regulation for something that is only just entering into prototype.

The US Transportation Department made its first formal policy statement on autonomous vehicles. In a nonbinding recommendation to the states, it said that driverless cars should not yet be allowed, except for testing. But it said that semi-autonomous features, like cars that keep themselves centered in lanes and adjust their speed based on the location of the vehicle ahead, could save lives.

It is the latest example of the tension between technological innovation and regulation moving at different speeds.

On the technology front, Google has gone the furthest with cars driving employees to commute the 40 miles between San Francisco and its Mountain View HQ along the curves of California State Route 1, a treacherous road overhanging the Pacific Ocean. The cars have driven more than a half million miles, according to the company.

They are not the only ones: car manufacturers are also contributing to a quiet revolution, integrating selected elements of driverless technology: Mercedes have radar systems that brake to prevent collision, stay in lane and sense when a driver is fatigued. Ford midsize Fusion sedan has a lane-assist system that alerts drivers when they stray from the roadway.

So the statement from the US Transportation Department illustrates broader cultural and regulatory issues about autonomous systems in general, not just cars: authorities are also struggling to regulate flying drones. And now that they have acknowledged the coming shifts, they are buying time before adjudicating.

Whilst the Traffic Safety Administration acknowledges Driverless Car technology is not advanced enough to develop safety standards yet, it is beginning a 4-year research project on how to safely use automation, including studies of how humans interact with the cars, the reliability of the technology and risks like cyber attacks.

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