BMW’s research group has released a video of a modified BMW 5 Sedan driving autonomously on the German autobahn. The car is equipped with lidar, radar, ultrasound and camara sensing technologies. The car drives completely autonomously on the autobahn. It switches lanes automatically, recognizes speed limits, and can cope with a wide range of unusual situations. As the project’s leader Nico Kämpchen explains this requires exact knowledge of highway lanes – with centimeter precision! All the sensors have been integrated into the car in an unobtrosive way to avoid spoiling the car’s good looks. The car has now logged almost 5000 km of autonomous driving on the autobahn. While this is a research project, we expect that such technology will appear in high end models in the not so distant future.
Last week’s symposium on the legal issues of autonomous vehicles addressed many interesting issues. While the full range of the discussion will only be available to the public with the upcoming special issue of the Santa Clara Law Review (expected in May), here are some of the more interesting issues:
If a driverless car drives a drunk person home, could the person be charged with drunk driving? This is by no means a trivial issue because all current autonomous cars allow switching between driverless and normal modes. In an accident doubts may be raised about who had control of the car. A similar problem arises for operating mobile phones while driving. The Nevada law on driverless cars includes an explicit provision for this case.
The law changes introduced in Nevada and being considered in Florida and Hawai only address the legality of operating driverless cars in traffic. They don’t affect the key issue of liability.
Will driverless cars be able to recognize a police officer and be able to understand their directions? How about roadside workers?
How about privacy concerns about the travel data that’s collected by onboard computers
Potentials for misuse because of hacking, obtaining remote control over the vehicle and failure because of high dependency on global positioning infrastructure.
Frank Douma, a transportation expert at the University of Minnesota, concluded: “There’s probably as much work to be done on regulations and cultural acceptance as there is on refining the technical or engineering obstacles to these things”
Autonomous car technology is maturing fast but legal issues may soon become the biggest obstacle to their adoption. This emerging topic will take center stage at a symposium to be held in Santa Clara, CA on January 20. Organized by the Santa Clara Law Review, the day long event brings together researchers and officials from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Issues to be addressed include liability aspects, insurance issues and implications for the regulatory framework. More information is available here.
National Public Radio featured an interview about the state of driverless car technology on January 17. Bryant Walker Smith, a legal scholar at Stanford estimated that driverless car technology could be available on the market within 10 years. He discussed progress on the legalization of driverless cars in Nevada and Florida and stressed the great potential to save lives. A transcript and soundtrack of the interview is available here.
Google is building a patent portfolio in driverless car technology. In December, the US Patent Office awarded Patent 8078349 for transitioning a car from human-driven to autonomous mode. A key problem which this patent solves is to ensure that the car knows its precise location when switching into autonomous mode. GPS may not be precise enough for the vehicle to understand where it is (it may only be accurate by 10 meters) and to determine the direction it should take. Therefore Google proposes using markings called landing strips – which may be embedded in the road. The human driver stops the car on a landing strip which the car then detects and uses to determine its location. Landing strips may even contain an embedded QR-code. But landing strips need not be marked on the ground. They may consist of recognizable well defined locations which a car can detect by examining its surroundings and for which it can look up the data in a database or online. An example could be a conventional, clearly marked parking spot.
The patent also addresses additional issues of providing instructions to the autonomous car when switching to autonomous mode. This could include instructions to move to a different location where the car is needed or to proceed to a service station for maintenance.