Driverless cars face technical, legal hurdles

Michael Martinez and Michael Wayland
The Detroit News

The driverless car of tomorrow may look cool — recent concepts feature sleek, "Jetsons"-like designs and interiors that resemble VIP lounges — but experts caution that much work needs to be done to make them practical.

In theory, autonomous vehicles are meant to make roads safer by eliminating error-prone humans from the driving experience. But can the sensors that will soon steer your car be able to account for five inches of snow and ice in mid-January? How will they handle Michigan's pothole-filled highways?

Industry experts at the three-day SAE World Congress at Cobo Center say there are still no real answers, and a number of barriers remain to having safe, functional driverless cars.

"Everybody can operate on a prototype level pretty well," said Pat Bassett, vice president of North American research and engineering center for auto supplier Denso International America Inc. "It's when there's no perfect conditions or when the weather's bad ... there's still some technical challenges and some legal issues that have to be resolved."

Legal issues include liability questions. When there's no driver behind the wheel, who's responsible if there's an accident? Will automakers have to take on added responsibility?

Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina, said we're likely not going to find out until the first driverless car crashes.

"The economics of crash litigation cases are going to change," he said. "It's the uncertainty that makes this that much more difficult."

Ray Kurzweil, well-known inventor and futurist, said there's a certain amount of fear and anticipation to autonomous vehicles that have to be overcome before the technologies are accepted.

"It's not going to be introduced until it's much safer than the alternative … but it's definitely coming," he said.

Features like lane-departure warnings, adaptive cruise-control that speeds up or slows down cars to maintain their pace in traffic — all steps on the way to driverless cars — are available from most carmakers already.

And the discussion about fully autonomous cars is heating up.

This week at the Shanghai Auto Show, Chevrolet showed off a futuristic FNR autonomous concept vehicle that features sensors, roof-mounted radar and 180-degree swivel seats.

Ford recently grew its partnership with Stanford University by donating a Fusion Hybrid to its engineering program to test driverless car algorithms in order to faster develop autonomous cars. President and CEO Mark Fields recently said he expects a fully driverless car to be on the road in five years, but doesn't necessarily expect Ford to be first in the driverless car space.

Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn has said his company will produce autonomous cars by 2020. And the race has grown tighter as tech companies like Google have announced plans to build their own prototypes.

Gov. Rick Snyder on Tuesday said Michigan will remain at the center of developing autonomous and connected cars.

"We're committed to the autonomous and connected vehicle concept," Snyder said during opening remarks Tuesday at the conference. "We're going to continue to do new things to move that along."

The second-term Republican governor said Michigan is partnering with federal officials to do on-road testing in Ann Arbor as well as opening M City, a 30-acre campus for the testing of autonomous and connected vehicles that is slated to open this summer on the University of Michigan campus.

Snyder also said the state is committed to teaching science, technology, engineering and math in its schools to help encourage future generations to develop new, innovative technologies for future transportation.

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