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Robotic Driving: OK With You?

05/08/2015 12:23 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2016
Shutterstock / ambrozinio

May 8, 2025 -- Jury deliberations continued for a third day today in the trial of a college student accused of negligent homicide in an eight-car crash that took three lives. On the witness stand, the student acknowledged taking her eyes off the road for a period of "several minutes" while using the car's built-in touch screen to reorganize her music library. Her defense blamed the crash on a software defect in the vehicle's autopilot system to which she had turned over control of all driving tasks.

Auto executives, called as witnesses, denied rushing the autonomous-driving system to market without sufficient testing, and blamed the driver for not rapidly taking back control of the vehicle when a problem arose. The defendant's lead attorney grilled the executives on the company's marketing slogan, "Leave the driving to us!"

The auto industry, along with insurers, regulators, and legislators, are closely following the case, which comes at a time when public opinion about who's responsible for traffic crashes has been gradually shifting from the driver of the car to the developers, manufacturers, and sellers of autonomous-driving systems.

Ten years from now, the world will be smack in the middle of a historic transition in the relationship between car and driver, as robotic operating systems increasingly take charge of monitoring the roadway, executing lane changes, controlling steering and braking, sharing data with nearby vehicles and surrounding infrastructure, and -- above all -- avoiding crashes.

When General Motors' semi-autonomous driving package, called Super Cruise, debuts in the 2017 Cadillac CT6 sedan, it will enable the car to hold its lane in highway driving, apply the brakes as needed, and control the speed -- all without driver involvement. Unlike Mercedes-Benz's and Toyota's comparable systems, GM's will not require motorists to keep their hands on the wheel in case an emergency arises.

Over the long-term, as autonomous driving systems are perfected and gain widespread acceptance, robotic driving promises tremendous societal benefits -- preventing injuries and fatalities, providing mobility for the aged and disabled, improving gas efficiency, and enabling "drivers" to make more productive use of their time behind the wheel. But, as always, it's the transitions in life that are the toughest to navigate.

The transition to fully autonomous driving will confront numerous technical and policy challenges, as cars increasingly rely on radar- and laser-based sensors and computer software to monitor a vehicle's surroundings and adjust its speed and direction, while transmitting the gathered data to nearby cars and highway infrastructure to facilitate coordinated responses.

Robotic driving on the open highway is likely to win broad public acceptance over the next decade (although the most aggressive drivers on the road will balk at using "nanny-tech" self-driving systems).

However, the policy outlook is extremely uncertain for use of these systems in complex urban and suburban environments where cross traffic, pedestrians, and bicyclists will create huge challenges for the algorithms that the systems rely on.

Today, thousands of engineers have been mobilized by industry in a fiercely competitive race to bring self-driving systems to market. Meanwhile, however, regulators and policy makers are lagging far behind in examining and confronting what to do about this historic and deeply consequential set of technological innovations. Although the U.S. National Traffic Safety Administration has begun to address the problem, it needs to be upgraded to a top agency priority, with an independent task force convened to closely examine all the surrounding issues. State legislatures and city councils will need to decide how far to go to permitting the use of these systems in their jurisdictions. As The New York Times reported on Sunday, there currently are no laws on the books that directly address the use of robotic driving systems.

And then there are these questions: How many years of safety data will regulators require before granting approvals? In what locales will this data be collected, and by what standards will it be evaluated? Will public acceptance be set back by decades if a small number of horrific crashes are blamed on self-driving systems? And, last but not least, how will hackers be prevented from causing massive traffic jams -- or worse -- by hijacking the systems that govern communication among vehicles?

This post is part of a series commemorating The Huffington Post's 10 Year Anniversary through expert opinions looking forward to the next decade in their respective fields. To see all of the posts in the series, read here.