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Rough road ahead for Google’s self-driving cars

New technology may protect drivers and their passengers from serious injuries. Self-parking and lane straightening devices have been incorporated by car companies into existing vehicles used in New York and throughout the country.

However, the development of a vehicle that drives itself and lacks steering wheels and pedals raises important questions about safety and legal liability. These problems may be magnified in high-density traffic areas such as Manhattan.

With respect to these issues, Google’s introduction of a self-driving test vehicle without steering wheels and pedals has run into a regulatory roadblock by the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

Earlier this year, Google introduced vehicles which do not allow drivers to brake or accelerate as part of its goal to build a vehicle that can run on its own and without a human driver. However, it has settled on a less ambitious plan following objections from California officials.

Another state introduced rules for self-driving cars, taking effect on September 16, requiring equipment that allows the driver to take over driving the car on California’s roadways if necessary. The vehicles will have to have brake and accelerator pedals. Google will comply with this regulation by adding gas and brake pedals as well as a steering wheel. Test drivers will first work with this new design on private roads before offering the car to the public.

Google has made almost 100 of these prototype cars with speeds capped at 25 mph to limit damage in an accident and making them easier to drive. State officials are drafting rules that will ultimately govern cars without steering wheels or pedals.

Self-driving technology has not appeared on city streets and highways. Public acceptance and determining liability in car accidents have posed additional obstacles. The state, in fact, rejected Google’s request to test autonomous motorcycles and trucks.

In a car accident, determining liability may be especially complicated when there is no driver and it becomes more difficult to assign blame. Defendants could include the designer of the technology, the vehicle’s owner, possibly, other passengers who were in the vehicle at the time of the incident. State regulators tried to address this issue by requiring companies which test self-driving vehicles to obtain $5 million in insurance, but the issue nonetheless remains.

For New York drivers, new and future technologies may play a role in auto accidents. Victims of these accidents should promptly seek advice to protect their right to compensation.

Source: Wall Street Journal, “For Google’s self-driving cars, it’s a bumpy trip,” Alistair Barr, Aug. 24