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Self-Driving Taxis Aren't Illegal...But Should They Be?

One day when you jump into a taxi, it will be missing one significant piece of equipment: a driver.

The ride-sharing service Uber has taken a significant stride in making this futuristic vision a reality by introducing self-driving taxis to American city streets. Although Uber says its cars will have two trained safety drivers who can take over in the event of an emergency, this new foray into driverless vehicles is not without controversy. Safety experts say that autonomous cars are not yet ready to deploy. They cite problems with the cars' navigational systems: they are confused by bridges and tunnels. They have difficulty in bad weather; downpours, snow, and puddles make it difficult for the cars to sense lines on the road. And they have problems discerning human gestures, such as those of a school crossing guard.

With over 37,000 dying on America's roads each year, many are concerned that autonomous cars will put people even more at risk. This isn't without basis: in May of this year, 40-year-old man was killed when his self-driving Tesla slammed into a tractor trailer in central Florida. Even proponents of Uber's new enterprise in the Steel City admit that the system is far from perfect, allowing that human error and still-nascent technology will likely lead to accidents.

The Legal Side

Uber is entering a rather barren legal landscape; as of yet there are no safety standards or federal guidelines for self-driving cars. Legislation has been proposed to regulate testing, insurance, liability, security breaches and reporting of accidents, but Uber's taxis will be service long before any laws hit the books. In fact, Uber sidestepped some of the potential issues by initiating conversations with regulators, and thus was able to avoid obstacles and exploit loopholes.

Nevertheless, unanswered legal questions are springing up. Who pays the ticket when the car runs a red light, doesn't notice a traffic sign, or goes the wrong way down a one-way street? More seriously, what happens when an autonomous car kills someone? American jurisprudence wants to assign blame to someone, and that someone is usually the driver. But what happens when the car is the driver? Technology is clearly ahead of bureaucracy; legislators have some catching up to do.

Like it or not, self-driving cars are here to stay. Apple, Google, Tesla, Toyota and Uber are all working on the technology. Toyota will spend $1 billion over the next five years on research and development. But the safety record of this Jetson-age transportation has yet to be written, and legal knots will need to be untied for years to come.

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