Auto Revolution: A Promising Future for Self-Driving Cars

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"Traveling at a crawl is a very easy thing to master," Thrun agrees. But the new Mercedes S-Class can do more than that. It corrects the driver's steering at higher speeds as well, although in this case the driver must remain at least minimally involved, by keeping his or her hands on the steering wheel. Pressure sensors check that the driver is doing so and after a few seconds of handless driving, an alarm sounds and the autopilot switches off.

Legal Road Bumps

Here, Mercedes is following much the same principle as the dead man's switch in a high-speed train -- and for legal rather than technological reasons. Indeed, Mercedes could allow its S-Class to drive on highways completely autonomously. But it doesn't believe it's allowed to do so.

The reason for this lies with the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, a UN treaty signed on November 8, 1968. Article 8 of this document clearly states, "Every moving vehicle or combination of vehicles shall have a driver."

This same principle, carried over more or less verbatim, has found its way into the laws of the treaty's signatory nations. And, there, has remained, largely ignored for decades because the prospect of driverless cars was simply never an issue.

Added wording in these state-level laws further specifies that that "driver" is understood to mean a living being and not a collection of semiconductors. The German law on the subject, for example, reads, "Every driver must be physically and mentally capable of driving," before going on to talk about regulations concerning driving lessons. In other words, there can be no doubt here that "driver" means a person, not a computer.

Still, Ralf Herrtwich, who oversees the development of driver assistance and chassis systems for Daimler, believes there is "a lack of clear regulations." And, indeed, there is no doubt that technological developments in this area far have far outpaced amendments in the applicable laws. Even the new S-Class' autonomous driving capabilities in low-speed traffic exist somewhere on the edge of what the law allows, putting Mercedes' new luxury sedan in a legal gray area.

Thrun, the Google researcher, takes a less delicate view when it comes to the situation in the US. "No state in the US expressly forbids autonomous driving," he says. Nevada, in fact, expressly allows it and is currently working to establish more precise regulations. California and other states plan to follow Nevada's example.

Utopian? Or Feasible?

This open-mindedness on the part of the authorities ties in with certain economic policy interests. The computer industry is the last true bastion of the American Dream, the last economic sector in the US that is entirely intact and has the potential for boundless growth. Apple and Google are what General Motors once was, and Google's self-driving car is tantamount to an embodiment of the belief in digital progress.

Thrun, almost boyish-looking despite his 45 years, is perfect for his role as a major player in this pursuit. He took time off from his job at Stanford to found a free online higher-education portal called Udacity as a way of democratizing education, and he likewise sees his driverless car as serving a redemptive societal function. "Think of all the people who are blind or suffer from Parkinson's or Alzheimer's," he says. "Millions of Americans are denied the privilege of driving on health grounds."

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