My Car Quest

July 25, 2024

The Self-Driving Car Is Almost Here – Part 3

by Mike –

This is the third installment in the self-driven car series. – Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

Legal and Ethics

An attorney for the California Department of Motor Vehicles raised concerns that “The technology is ahead of the law in many areas,” citing state laws that “all presume to have a human being operating the vehicle”. According to The New York Times, policy makers and regulators have argued that new laws will be required if driverless vehicles are to become a reality because “the technology is now advancing so quickly that it is in danger of outstripping existing law, some of which dates back to the era of horse-drawn carriages”. Source: Wikipedia.

It is not uncommon for new technology to outstrip the legal system. The Internet has been in this position for many years and is still not yet all sorted out. Self-driving cars will be in a legal unknown land for a few years.

All self-driven cars would have the technical capability to read and store every license plate on every car they pass, either a moving car or a parked car. This information could be digitized, matched with the time and GPS coordinates and stored in the cloud somewhere, along with the name of the owner. This would create a record of where each and every car passed by the self-driven car was at a specific time. Would it be legal to collect and store this information?

This capability exists today on some police cars for law enforcement purposes. When self-driven cars are commonplace, if this information were collected and stored, then it would be possible to track the movements of virtually every car and likely nearly every person in those cars.

Autocar Magazine

A 100 year vision of the self-driven car from Lockheed and a British Professor – The Autocar Magazine – 5 November 1954

How would the car insurance industry change to take into account self-driven cars? Who would be legally responsible for an accident in self-driving mode, the owner or the carmaker? What if a driver was driving manually and had an accident with a car in self-driving mode would the manual driver be at a legal disadvantage because of the low probability that a self-driven car can make a mistake and the high probability that a human can make a mistake?

Asimov’s Laws of Robotics

The self-driving car is perhaps the first practical and useful application of personal robots that many people will own, interact with and use regularly. I wonder if society will require these robots to follow Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics? Asimov was a writer, mainly of science fiction, and a biochemistry professor.

The laws are written in order of priority for the robot.

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Is the safety of the humans inside the car a higher priority than humans outside the car?

What decision would the self-driving car make if there were an unavoidable choice between running into a crowd of ten people or driving off a cliff killing only the one passenger? What would the answer be if the car is not owned by the passenger but is a rental car or taxicab? Would the rental car company or the taxicab company be allowed to specify that the programming make such decisions in a way that reduces their legal liability independent of the moral implications?

Is speeding or breaking a minor traffic law ever acceptable for a self-driven car? These rules will be programed into the car and may not be changeable by the owner unless the owner switches to manual driving mode.

Speed limits for each location must be available to the car, either by being transmitted wirelessly or by the car reading the speed limit signs. When speed limits change temporarily such as when there is local construction the car needs to know.

If a self-driven car exceeds the speed limit who gets the speeding ticket? Is it the passenger, who presumably did nothing, or the car manufacturer, who may have a program error?

Driving Laws

Driving laws from different locations must be programed into the car or be available from a wireless connection because driving laws vary by location even in the US all states do not have exactly the same driving laws.

In order to fully take advantage of the self-driving technology laws would need to change in order to allow non-drivers (children or anyone without a drivers license) to occupy a self-driven car without a licensed driver and to allow a self-driven car to be unoccupied.

In the long-term future it may be illegal for a person to drive a car and only self-driven cars will be allowed on public roads because of safety. This could happen in different countries and different states in the US at different times and maybe in some cities before other locations.

Google Self Driving Car

Google Self Driving Car – Photo by Mike Gulett

The United States has a deep rooted culture of individual freedom taking priority over the group. Taking away the right to drive a car would be extremely difficult in the US. Over time as more than one generation become accustomed to self-driving cars many people may not see the need to learn to drive and eventually there will be very few licensed drivers. Cars will be self-driven naturally because few people will want to drive. This is similar to how the number of people who know how to ride a horse, and actually do ride a horse, has dropped dramatically since the beginning of the 20th century.

There must be an exception for the classic car owner and driver because it is unlikely that the right to drive a classic car would be infringed.

Car Racing

Autonomous cars could be programmed to drive a road race car better than a human. The autonomous car could brake at just the right place, turn in at the perfect spot, hit the apex, turn out just right and move from braking to power perfectly. An autonomous racecar would do all of this every time on every turn on every lap. The race would then be a race between the engineers, the designers and builders of the autonomous racecars. If every car in the race was an autonomous car then there would never be an accident except in the case of equipment failure.

In the beginning I expect we will see self-driven cars racing against identical manually driven cars piloted by the best racecar drivers in a similar fashion to the chess matches we have witnessed between people and IBM computers. Like the chess matches eventually the self-driven racecars will consistently win as the IBM computers have won chess matches.


The self-driven car has the potential to be the biggest change for the automobile since the automobile was invented and could be a disruptive technology for the automobile industry. I have tried to guess some of the changes we may see when this exciting new technology is fully implemented but I know that I have missed many and will be wrong on others. The thing about new technology is that it has a tendency to go where no one can predict.

In his opening address to the 1939 New York World’s Fair (where Norman Bel Geddes presented his vision for the future) President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “the eyes of the United States are fixed on the future. Our wagon is hitched to a star. But it is a star of good will, a star of progress for mankind, a star of greater happiness and less hardship, a star of international good will, and above all, a star of peace. May the months to come carry us forward in the rays of that hope”.

This rings true today for many more countries in addition to the US.

Is the self-driven car part of humanities Elysium? For me it must also include the flying car, both self-driven and manual.

The Jetsons - Hanna-Barbera

The Jetsons – Source: Hanna-Barbera

Let us know what you think in the Comments about self-driven cars. I would specifically like to read your thoughts about the impact of self-driven cars on society and individuals.

What else will delay this new capability from becoming commonplace?



The Self-Driving Car Is Almost Here - Part 3
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The Self-Driving Car Is Almost Here - Part 3
Should Asimov’s Laws of Robotics be applied to the self-driven car?

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