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Self-Driving Cars -- Are We Ready?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

FindLaw columnist Eric Sinrod writes regularly in this section on legal developments surrounding technology and the Internet.

Many of us feel the need for control - we need to be behind the wheel when in a car. We do not like others to drive us, and when they do, we become the classic backseat drivers - constantly critiquing the technique of whoever is driving besides ourselves.

And then there is the issue of people beyond the wheel in other cars. So many people can be seen screaming in their cars and gesturing angrily at other drivers. This frustration sometimes boils over into true road rage, and unfortunately there have been instances of true violence that have erupted simply because of quarrels about getting cut off in traffic, road speed and other driving issues.

But is that all about to change? Are we willing to relinquish control and give ourselves up to self-driving vehicles? Technological efforts already are moving in that direction - but will that technology be embraced?

A good part of our American culture is built around the freedom provided by cars on the road. Perhaps we would be even more free if our cars drove themselves. Not only would we drive to and fro freely, but we also would be free from the actual task of driving. We truly could multi-task, and the idea would be that such multi-tasking would be safe. Rather than driving while dangerously texting, the car would drive itself and we could do practically anything else at the same time - be it texting, working, watching shows, or even sleeping.

What about safety, though? We certainly have witnessed many car accidents over the years, with a tremendous number of deaths and injuries resulting from human driving errors. So, the human driving baseline is not terribly high.

Would self-driving cars do better? Google's most recent Self-Driving Car Project Monthly Report indicates that its self-driving technology has made significant progress over the past six years. Since the start of the project started in 2009, Google's self-driving cars have driven in autonomous mode (meaning software is driving the vehicles) a total of 1,011,338 miles, currently averaging 10,000 autonomous miles per week on public streets. And throughout all of that autonomous driving, Google reports that there have been 12 minor accidents - none of which was caused by the self-driving car. For example, one self-driving car was rear-ended when stopped at a traffic light.

Of course, the logging of a little more than 1 million autonomous driving miles is not very much to draw from for definitive conclusions. That is tantamount to the life of only ten vehicles that log 100,000 miles apiece.

But still, these preliminary results are promising. When we realize that commercial aircraft largely fly themselves as a matter of technology, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to imagine automobiles doing the same thing. Who knows, in the future, people may look back on our current time like we view the horse and buggy days; they may find it difficult to believe that once upon a time people actually had to drive their own cars beyond simply plugging in their anticipated destinations.

Nevertheless, we get back to the issue of giving up control. It may take time for there to be such a paradigm shift that people readily will relinquish control of their automobiles to software. We already have enough trouble giving the wheel over to someone else; can we give it up to nobody in particular?

Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please email him at with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.

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