Calif. Greenlights Self-Driving Cars, But Legal Kinks Linger : All Tech Considered Supporters of the technology say it will save a million lives a year and prevent a global carmageddon. But among the questions still to be worked out: If a self-driving car runs a red light and gets caught, who gets the ticket?
NPR logo

Calif. Greenlights Self-Driving Cars, But Legal Kinks Linger

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Calif. Greenlights Self-Driving Cars, But Legal Kinks Linger

Calif. Greenlights Self-Driving Cars, But Legal Kinks Linger

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Google has spent several years working on developing self-driving cars. Think of them as Google Maps, you know, where you can directions, but with a car attached. And now, these cars are finally able to take to California's roads legally. Last week, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill to set up rules for testing and operating self-driving cars. There are still some wrinkles to work out, though, before the robotic cars can join the daily commute. NPR's Steve Henn reports.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: When I went for a ride in Google's self-driving, robotic car last winter, there were still a few things these robots couldn't do.

Is it good at pulling out?

CHRIS URMSON: We don't do reverse at this point.

HENN: Chris Urmson and Anthony Levandowski lead this project at Google. If these cars are kind of like robotic teenagers who are learning to drive, Urmson and Levandowski are kind of like their parents.

ANTHONY LEVANDOWSKI: Well, the cars will do reverse at some point. It's just not what we're focused on right now. Yeah.

HENN: And while these robots are responsible, cautious drivers, Urmson says there are some important things they're still figuring out.

URMSON: We do a good job of detecting pedestrians by the side of the road, but we don't yet have built in, kind of, the intuition for what a pedestrian might do.

HENN: Temporary roads signs are a challenge. So is snow. But already, there are all sorts of things this robotic car can do that human drivers can only dream about. This car has lasers and radar mounted on its roof.

Is that right?

LEVANDOWSKI: That's correct. So, this laptop here is just looking at what the computer in the back that's imbedded in the car is thinking, and it's showing us the map of where the car is.

HENN: It senses all the objects around us, even some I don't notice or can't see myself. And the potential, Urmson says, is enormous.

URMSON: This technology, as it evolves, could eliminate traffic accidents.

HENN: These cars never get tired or distracted. They don't drink and drive. They don't text. Steve Jurvetson is a venture capitalist and self-driving car enthusiast. He says safety is a huge benefit, but that's just the beginning.

STEVE JURVETSON: Because we're going to go from about a billion vehicles on the road today to about two to four billion globally in the next 50 years. We can't accommodate that in anything approaching the infrastructure we have in place. If we don't do something dramatic to enhance infrastructure or the way cars drive, we're going to have traffic jams like you can't imagine.

HENN: Picture global gridlock.

JURVETSON: But, with autonomous cars, they can drive two to three times more densely, because they can tailgate, even today remove all traffic jams from America if all cars went this way.

LEVANDOWSKI: Preventing a global carmageddon and ending traffic accidents are huge promises for a technology that's still in its infancy. But there are still some legal problems to work out. And Google's cofounder, Sergey Brin, and Governor Jerry Brown were asked about one of them right before Brown signed California's bill to legalize and regulate these robots.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: So if a self-driving car runs a red light and gets nabbed, who gets the ticket?

GOVERNOR JERRY BROWN: Whoever owns the car, I would think. But we'll work that out. We'll work that - that's going to be the easiest problem to work out.

SERGEY BRIN: Self-driving cars do not run red lights.

HENN: That may be true, but Bryant Walker Smith, who's teaching a class at Stanford Law School this fall on the law driving self-driving cars, says eventually, one of these vehicles will get into an accident. And when it does, it's not clear who will pay.

BRYANT WALKER SMITH: Exactly. So the question becomes: If you put a 15-year-old in the vehicle, press the go button and the vehicle drives off, are you, as the person who's sitting at home, the driver? Or is it the person in the car?

HENN: Or is it the company that wrote the software that's responsible? Or the automaker that built the car? Officials at the California DMV now have two years to write their final rules. And issues surrounding liability and who's ultimately responsible when robots take the wheel are likely to remain contentious. Already, trial lawyers, insurers, automakers and software engineers are queuing up to lobby rule-makers in California's capitol. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.