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Where Is Driverless Car Technology Now?


Now, we look into the future - the not-so-distant future - at cars without drivers. Cars do all sorts of things automatically these days: parallel park, sense when you're tired, and sound an alarm. And cars exist - albeit not yet on the market - that can operate entirely free of a human driver.

Already, at least two states - Nevada and Florida - are considering regulating the operation and safety of driverless cars. So we reached out to Bryant Walker Smith, a legal scholar at Stanford. He monitors developments in driverless car technology and policy. Bryant Walker Smith, thanks for joining us.

BRYANT WALKER SMITH: It's delightful to be here.

CORNISH: So Bryant, to start, where is driverless car technology at this point?

SMITH: It's on the horizon. The engineers in industry that I talk with say that the technical obstacles, while there still are some, are on their way to being solved. Now, predictions for when we might actually be able to buy that technology - I've heard in the order of 10 years as being the most optimistic.

CORNISH: Describe a little what Nevada and Florida are trying to do, in terms of their regulations.

SMITH: So Nevada is much further along in the process, which is to say that the two houses have passed, and the governor has signed, a law. And their Department of Motor Vehicles is currently developing draft regulations implementing that law. What those regulations will do when they're ultimately finalized is, say explicitly, under certain conditions, driverless vehicles are legal in the state.

Before we get to that stage, though, the legislation and the regulations also set up a regime for testing so that automobile manufacturers and others can come into the state, and actually test these vehicles on the road.

CORNISH: And can you describe what you think is the biggest legal question that's going to face this technology as it moves forward?

SMITH: One of the big questions is: At what point does the driver become the machine? If you think about autonomous technology as a spectrum, on one hand, we have basic cruise control in most cars today. On the other hand, we have the visions that we've been talking about - of a vehicle without anybody in it, or with everybody who's in it asleep or completely distracted. At what point can we say, as a legal matter, the driver does not need to pay attention, the driver is not responsible for what the car does? When we reach that point, then we reach some real value judgments.

CORNISH: In the end, why would we want to take the human driver out of the equation?

SMITH: So I can sleep on my way to work.


SMITH: No. There are...

CORNISH: Seriously. I mean, driving is a complicated thing, when you think about all the things that you have to make happen, you know, in your brain to like, back out of your driveway. And a lot of it is subjective judgment.

SMITH: It absolutely is. And a lot of times, those subjective judgments are impaired - or they're wrong. In the United States, over 30,000 people die on the road. Of those collisions, about 95 percent are attributable, at least in part, to human error. So at the very basic level, if we can get this right, we can save a lot of lives, and that's worth quite a lot.

CORNISH: Bryant Walker Smith works at Stanford, at both the Center for Automotive Research and the Center for Internet and Society. He studies developments in driverless car technology. Bryant Walker Smith, thanks for speaking with us.

SMITH: Thank you, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.