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Google's self-driving cars: Reality or science fiction?

Posting in Design

We may like the idea of simply pressing a button and going, but both regulators and the insurance industry are not so sure that Google's self-driving cars have a future.

Google's project to develop autonomous cars has been an interesting ride. Having continually tested its prototypes on public roads, and having previously lobbied for Nevada state legislation that would allow for autonomous cars to be driven on public streets, the project -- begun in 2010 -- is meant to help improve driver safety and make driving more efficient.

The prototype has so far managed to complete over 300,000 miles of testing, covering a wide range of different traffic conditions. Google's team says the vehicle has yet to be involved in an accident while under computer control -- although it's worth keeping in mind that on public roads, the prototype always has a driver present -- but whether this impressive record can be transformed into a commercial vehicle that meets safety standards remains to be seen.

Whereas Google would like to see these types of vehicles on the road within the next three to five years, red tape is yet to be cut. As Bloomberg reports, transport regulators and insurance firms aren't displaying the same enthusiasm for the project as the tech giant.

So, what's the problem? Just for starters, who would be responsible for accidents? Software used in such cars would have to have the same basic reactions as humans, and if there is a computational fault that causes a crash, would the driver or the software-making firm be at fault? Not only this, but vehicle safety standards would have to be assessed and potentially rewritten to account for electronics as well as mechanics -- and knowing how governments work, this could take a while.

No system is faultless, and everything has a chance of failure. But if a computer system fails when you're on the highway, not only could it prove more dangerous than usual -- as your attention is unlikely to be fully on the road if something else is in control -- and so a self-driving car would have to come with a plethora of safety mechanisms in place to cater for these issues.

Not only this, but such a system would have to be able to react to unexpected situations. For example, how would an autonomous car react if a child ran out into a road?

The technology may be shiny and new, but safety will prove a massive challenge before this kind of technology will be allowed to see the light of day when it comes down to the general public.

Dan Smith, associate administrator for vehicle safety at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) commented:

"It gets to be a massive challenge to figure out how will the government come up with a performance standard that is objective and testable for so many different scenarios where failure could possibly occur. Part of that has to do with if we should be looking at the underlying electronics."

Some experts predict that to claw through all of the potential problems and to update legislation for autonomous vehicles could take between 15 and 20 years. There has to be a mechanism for drivers to take control of a car, and so if this kind of autonomous technology expands, there will be no sitting in the back or reading a paper while you "drive" to work -- instead, it's likely you'll still be keeping your eyes on the road -- and simply driving with some smart assistance.

Image credit: Google

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— By on February 5, 2013, 11:20 PM PST

Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure