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Driverless Cars Part 1: The Basics of Autonomous Vehicles

Many big name tech companies and vehicle makers, including Tesla, Uber, G.M., and Google are choosing to focus their efforts on driverless cars. Most testing has been centered on the West Coast in states like California and Arizona, but Virginia has also begun allowing testing on Interstates 95 and 495.

There are many levels of autonomy for the so-called “driverless cars”. Almost all of them require at least one human “driver” to take over the car in case of an emergency. According to the Virginia Department of Transportation, the vehicles can be programmed with the posted speed limits and learn traffic flows to prevent traffic backups, accompanying the sensors that prevent the cars from drifting into other lanes.

Driverless cars are being hailed as the vehicle of the future, but recent accidents involving these cars are raising questions about how safe they really are. Since the technology is still in developing stages, the federal and state governments have yet to decide how to regulate it. There is work being done on legislation in the House of Representatives and in the Senate regarding the creation of federal regulations. Another reason safety has been called into question is the technology is so young, the cars are only now starting to face the uncertain driving conditions that human drivers deal with on a daily basis. The car makers seem to think the vehicles will be able to handle these conditions with a timely response, but what about the human driver that has to take over in the event of an emergency? The whole reason for an autonomous vehicle is to take the human out of the equation.

Too, there is question about who would be at fault when a driverless car is in an accident. Makers of autonomous vehicles are quick to place the blame on the human-driven cars that they have been in an accident with, but in 2016 a Google driverless vehicle’s programming failed and it was clearly responsible for the accident. More recently, a woman was struck and killed by a self-driving Uber vehicle in 2018. As of March, it had yet to be determined who was at fault for the accident, but Uber did suspend its testing of the automated cars.