NissanEarlier this week, Nissan announced its ambitious plan to put self-driving cars on the market by 2020.
It's not the only automaker working to free humans from the need to drive: GM, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Volvo, and others have their own projects, not to mention Google.
That 2020 goal will be difficult to meet, but not because it's hard to make a machine that's better at driving than a human.
The technology is basically ready, Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelly Blue Book, said in an interview. The issues Nissan and its rivals need to address are legal and insurance-related ones.
The Big Hurdles
In a video interview, Nissan executive vice president Andy Palmer said "what we need now is regulatory changes."
Self-driving cars are already legal in California and Nevada, so it's clear legislators are open to the idea. But the fact that they will share the road with human-driven cars presents "a lot of legal issues to iron out," Brauer says.
If an autonomous car gets into an accident with one driven by a human, who is to blame? How do you assign fault to a computer program? Do you assume the human screwed up?
More importantly, how do you convince Allstate or GEICO to insure a car without a human behind the wheel? Even without human error, accidents will happen. In an interview, Maarten Sierhuis, the director of Nissan's Research Center in Silicon Valley, said autonomous technology "is moving fast and moving forward," but it's not 100% there just yet. And even when it is road-ready, Brauer noted, "you will have autonomous cars screwing up and causing accidents."
"It's going to be interesting," Brauer said, to see how automakers split their resources between R&D guys in lab coats and lobbyists in suits.
Asked about how Nissan plans to deal with legal issues, Sierhuis said that is something that "has to be worked out with government organizations and cities and states." He added that California, "eager to stimulate technological development," has been positive and willing to work with Nissan on the issue.
Part of the solution, Brauer said, is getting the government to devise a standardized safety test for autonomous vehicles. That means lobbying legislators and the administration to change the rules and let them put their cars on the roads, while making sure there's a system in place for handling any problems that arise.
Winning Over Drivers
Even if all that comes together, automakers will have to convince humans to give up control. According to a recent KBB poll, 53% of Americans would never consider purchasing a car that drives itself around.
Once people see that these cars really are safe, efficient, and practical, that number would likely drop. And even if it doesn't, you can sell plenty of cars to the 47% who may be interested.
The rate of adoption is "a little bit of an open question," Sierhuis said. But he made it clear that the technology is on the way, and it will fundamentally change how we get around and live our lives.
"This transformation is already happening," he said.
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