In the News: Landmark decision on driverless Cars

Today the Washington Post reported the first step in regulating autonomous cars. In a letter to Google, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said they would be treating the software behind autonomous vehicles as the "driver" in legal situations. This raises all sorts of fascinating questions. How is insurance going to work? How do we determine the fault of a crash involving several driverless cars using the same software? Can this view be extended to UAVs? Will the "Not-Top-Gear" (what I'm calling the Clarkson/Hammond/May amazon show) hosts be out of a job?

The Post artical then goes on to mention that this does not give the go-ahead for a fully driverless car as the autonomous cars would have to obey all of the existing regulations for cars, which includes having brake pedals and steering wheels and such. Google dislikes this because it ruins their aesthetic, but I can see an intermediate step where there is both an "auto" mode and a fully driveable mode. In this case the driver would operate like the pilot of a commercial airliner, where 90% of the drive was autonomous but in the cases of emergencies and the trickier bits like parking the driver would take control. Of course, people would probably not pay attention to the parts where they are supposed to take control, but given that they already don't seem to pay attention while they're driving anyway nothing would really change. This path already seems to be happening with the increasingly complex software in driver controlled cars, so I think that will turn into the next step given this response from the government.

Another interesting question is: who owns the software? When driverless cars go on the market, there will be people modifying the code (and voiding their warranties) present in the vehicles. Or if there are locks in place on the code they will just take out the processors and put in their own. That's pretty much inescapable. The natural assumption in this case is that modified code will probably be illegal since it won't have gone through any of the safety tests imposed on commercial code. Were I to guess, Google will sell the car and software as one complete package where we have a license to the software but not the rights to do anything with it. Google will pay the overall insurance based on the number of units sold and add it as an individual bill to the customer.

One endgame of the driverless car push is to overhaul the public transportation and taxi system. I can see cities and towns deploying fleets of driverless buses, trains, and cars that we can deploy with our smartphones whenever we need to go somewhere. This isn't unsimilar to the car-share programs already present, and would be cheaper for many people than owning a car (I make use of a car-share program specifically for this reason). The downside of this is that you have to have some future planning, and there will always be cases where you need a car at a moment's notice. Thus, individual cars will probably never be phased out.

Culturally, this poses interesting questions as well. The car (and before that, the horse) is fundemental to the modern American mythology. It represents the freedom to go wherever you please, the adventure of the open road, and the roar of the engine echoes your roar to the world as you take control of your own destiny. Cars are characters in their own right in our cinema, and many are instantly recognizable cultural icons. When driverless cars control the market and the last of the old auto-shops finally closes down, where does that leave us philosophically? Are we telling the car where to go or is the car driving us into oblivion? The journey used to be the most important part of any quest. When physical location becomes meaningless and we can be anywhere we want to go at any time what does the journey become? These are the questions that keep me up at night.

As an engineer and a graduate student, it's part of my job to push the limits of human technology. As a human, I'm worried that our humanity will get lost in the changes brought upon by technology, and I'm scared that what we gain out of science won't be worth what we lost along the way. Plus, I like to drive.