Driverless cars came to the forefront of transportation discussions this weekend when General Motors CEO Mary Barra announced her company’s plan to add “hands-free and feet-free” driving capabilities to some 2017 models.

In her announcement, Barra cited safety as a major factor in GM's decision to push ahead with automated driving technology. The “estimated the economic and societal impact of car crashes in the U.S. is more than $870 billion a year,” she said.

According to a 2008 study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Authority (NHTSA) on motor vehicle crashes, “human error is the critical reason for 93% of crashes.” This statistic is a major driver for pushes by governments and companies to get driverless vehicles on the road. But challenges abound.

In particular, governments and authorities around the world are working to clarify the safety and legal considerations of introducing driverless vehicles onto the roadways. For instance, should driverless cars have steering wheels and brake pedals? (Google’s famous prototype doesn’t have them.) If a driverless car is involved in an accident, where do the liabilities sit?

In his 2014 Texas A&M law review article, Bryan Walker Smith approaches the question of whether driverless vehicles can be lawfully sold and operated in the United States. “The short answer is that the computer direction of a motor vehicle’s steering, braking, and accelerating without real-time human input is probably legal” says Smith. However, he adds that “state vehicle codes...may complicate automated driving.”

At least five states have expressly regulated automated vehicles to some degree. In 2011, Nevada became the first with its Assembly Bill (AB) 511. This bill formalized the definition of “autonomous vehicle” and required that the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles “adopt regulations authorizing the operation of autonomous vehicles on highways within the State of Nevada” including a special “driver’s license endorsement…recogniz[ing] the fact that a person is not required to actively drive an autonomous vehicle.” The latter could imply the ability for drivers who might not otherwise be eligible for a license (e.g. due to physical impairments) to obtain a license to operate an automated vehicle.

Florida was the second state to expressly regulate autonomous vehicles. In 2012 Committee Substitute House Bill 1207 was enacted, defining “autonomous vehicle” and “autonomous technology” and declaring that a “person who possesses a valid driver license may operate an autonomous vehicle in autonomous mode.” The state also explicitly recognized some liability limitations, including for the original manufacturer in the case of “a third party [vehicle conversion] into an autonomous vehicle.”

California enacted similar legislation to Nevada and Florida with its 2012 Senate Bill 1298. In addition to defining “autonomous vehicles” and directing the DMV to establish rules for autonomous driving, this bill required data collection transparency from manufacturers. Washington, DC and Michigan have also pursued legislation to varying degrees.

Internationally, the United Kingdom’s government has approved road testing of autonomous vehicles in three cities starting by January 2015. Their tests are expected to last between 18 and 36 months and will include both completely driverless cars and those that incorporate a human driver as back-up.

Among private companies, the focus appears to lie in technology development, though significant lobbying efforts are certainly underway. In particular, Google has been actively lobbying in Washington to gain political support for its driverless car technologies over the past several years on topics including communication standards and legal concerns.

Within the traditional car manufacturers, Audi has showcased impressive spatial awareness capabilities that allow cars to park themselves in tight spaces without a driver’s input. Conversely, Ford has focused some of its efforts on active communication between vehicles, using wireless technologies to alert the driver of potential hazards and provide driving suggestions.

For GM, the star has been their “Super Cruise” feature. Originally revealed in 2012, this technology is similar to the autopilot capabilities seen on airplanes and could be a major step forward in eliminating the need for active driver engagement. At Sunday’s kick-off of the annual World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems Barra confirmed that several 2017 Cadillac models will have this new feature feature, so that “when there’s a congestion alert on roads like California’s Santa Monica Freeway, you can let the car take over and drive hands-free and feet-free through the worst stop-and-go traffic around. And if the mood strikes you on the high-speed road from Barstow, California to Las Vegas, you can take a break from the wheel and pedals and let the car do the work.”

Whether or not the GM announcement means that driverless vehicles will soon be taking over the roadways is to be seen. But, the potential exists – perhaps sooner rather than later.

Photo Credit:

1. Photo of Mary Barra from General Motors via Creative Commons.

2. Photo of Google Driverless Car by Steve Jurvetson via Creative Commons.

H/T R.Y.