Roadblock: Self-Driving Cars Face Legal, Liability and Lavish Price Hurdles

As self-driving cars become more visible on California roads, at least, they still face major roadblocks. Our Chandler Harris investigates the hurdles. — You now see Google-self-driving cars all over San Francisco Bay Area roads. And Google’s not the only ones. Now that other makers — these include Audi and Volvo — are testing autonomous cars, the roads are rife with hurdles. There are the inevitable laws and upcoming legislation federal and state lawmakers are setting up. There are issues of liability. And then there’s cost. This piece explains the intricacies of all three.

Let’s start with legislation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) already has announced policies, research plans and guidelines for testing these cars — and for how states should implement these policies, too. Scroll below the fold for details on those laws.

Image credit: Google

Said the NHTSA in a statement:

America is at a historic turning point for automotive travel … Motor vehicles and drivers’ relationships with them are likely to change significantly in the next ten to 20 years, perhaps more than they have changed in the last 100 years.”

The NHTSA already has announced a four-year study of automated vehicle systems. And it wants states to stop and smell the scenery.

Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, approves. She said:

NHTSA is right telling states to slow down, think this through and don’t rush into regulating driverless vehicles until there is more research.”

For more, see the USA Today interview with Harsha.

Autonomous cars currently only get tested in states that allow testing. That’s California, Nevada and Florida. Other states, including Texas, are moving forward to allow testing. As for the U.K., it’s planning to test self-driving cars on its roadways by the end of this year.

In the U.S. the miles logged are adding up. Google has logged more than 500,000 miles on automated Toyota Prius cars. As for the Lexus RX 450h goes, it will likely go further — it uses radar, lasers, cameras and computers to enable self-driving at a variety of levels.

Google’s Sergey Brin says self-driving cars are clearly on the event horizon, even for ordinary folk. He said:

You can count on one hand the number of years until ordinary people can experience (self-driving cars).”

And the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) predicts such self-motivated cars will easily make up about 75 percent of traffic by 2040.

Yet there remains great concern on a number of self-driving-car issues.

Liability is a big one. Who’s to blame when a self-driving car crashes — its owner? The human in the car?

To address that, Nevada and California passed laws requiring a licensed driver to be behind the wheel even if they’re not driving. That’s so they can take over should problems arise. And interestingly, Texas is working on a bill that would hold any human in an autonomous vehicle liable for an accident, even if he or she isn’t the one in the so-called driver’s seat.

Another setback? Cost. The advanced tech required to build the most-advanced self-driving cars is pricey — ranging up to $250K, according to Jeffrey Miller, who said as much in a TV interview. Miller, an IEEE member, is an associate professor in the computer systems engineering department at the University of Alaska at Anchorage.

Why do these vehicles cost so much? Autonomous cars have much more than just radar, cameras and global positioning systems, after all.

They also require expensive lida systems — that’s also known as laser radar. Such tech is capable of using real-time data to give a three-dimensional view of the area surrounding the car. The information is then processed by a series of computers that can take up the entire back seat of a sedan.

Google’s robotic car comprises an estimated $150,000 in equipment.

Yet the possibilities that autonomous cars hold of reducing human driver error and cutting down on traffic are driving interest up nonetheless.

Google claims it has 500,000 miles without incident. And the IEEE estimates human error is responsible for 80 percent of auto accidents. That’s at an average of at least one collision every 100,000 miles. Says IEEE’s Miller:

Is there a chance a computer may have a glitch? Of course, we see this everyday with using computers … (Is) it going to happen as frequently as humans making errors? Absolutely not.”

Deciphering Levels and Categories of Self-Driving Cars is a Course in Itself

The NHTSA has defined five different levels of vehicle automation from 0 to 4. The Level 4 car, for example, drives itself without driver assistance.

The cars Google is testing are Level 3. That means a driver must be present inside the car to take back control if necessary.

“Level 3 is truly in the testing phase and these guidelines are ensuring that the testing is done so it’s safe for the driver and safe for everyone else on the road,” said David Friedman, deputy administrator at the NHTSA,” in an article published in USA Today. “We want to make sure the drivers in these test vehicles, for instance, have appropriate training.”

Fair enough. Friedman outlined a number of questions that need to be answered regarding Level 3 and Level 4 autonomous, truly self-driving vehicles: How does the car warn the driver of the need to take over? How much warning does it give? How does the car interact overall with the person?

Level 2 cars are on the roads now, past just the testing phase, allowing drivers overall control but featuring two or more automated systems — like adaptive cruise control and lane centering.

Level 1 represents a car where the driver is in charge yet still cedes “function-specific” systems like stability control to the car on an optional basis.

The most basic level, Level 0, is where the driver is responsible for all the core functions of the car.

I’ll be driving, ahem, self-driving-car coverage for you here at I’m Chandler Harris.

Based in Silicon Valley, Chandler Harris is a senior editor at He has written for numerous publications including Entrepreneur, San Jose Magazine, Government Technology, Public CIO,, U.S. Banker, Digital Communities Magazine, Converge Magazine, Surfer’s Journal, Adventure Sports Magazine, and the San Jose Business Journal.