In this article, Tom Vanderbilt hits the road and tests a self-driving car: a fully autonomous vehicle that can pilot itself with more precision and efficiency than any human driver. He says the car, which is being developed by Google, provides a smooth and safe, if slightly surreal, ride, even at highway speeds, by using a laser-driven rooftop sensor and a GPS tracking system. “We are driving close to 70 mph with no human involvement, on a busy public highway, — a stunning demonstration,” he marvels. Established car companies — BMW, Mercedes, VW and Audi among them — are polishing up their own models.
We may have the technology to live like we’re in an episode of “Knight Rider,” but the lawyers need time to catch up. According to Vanderbilt, one of the holdups in marketing a self-driving car is liability. “What happens, for example, when a highway patrol officer pulls over a self-driving car?” he writes. “Who gets the ticket?” Another drawback: People who love cars won’t want to give up the wheel to a robot. What about the romance of the open road? Google roboticist Chris Urmson — who was sitting behind the wheel of (but not driving) Vanderbilt’s test car — thinks that the days of that freewheeling sentiment are numbered. “The average American commutes 52 minutes a day from Point A to Point B,” he tells Vanderbilt. “Not with the purpose of winding through the mountains and enjoying ‘The Sound of Music.’ ”