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Debate on self-driving cars only just beginning

The move toward fully autonomous or self-driving cars seems to be inevitable. The subject is not without its vocal critics though, which means there is no shortage of opinions. Debate is continuing, hot and heavy in Texas and elsewhere.

As we noted in a post earlier, we know that there have been accidents involving self-driving test vehicles. Our focus in that post was the question of liability. While there doesn't seem to be a clear answer yet, a number of experts say they don't think the liability question will be that big of a deal for a while. 

Indeed, one recent article in the Detroit Free Press reported that 84 percent of executives of major insurance companies polled said they don't think their business will see much of an impact from driverless cars until 2025.

Meanwhile, the National Transportation Safety Board recently it renewed its call to have collision avoidance systems made standard equipment on all new commercial and private vehicles. It dismisses complaints about the cost of such a strategy saying that it would prevent thousands of deaths due to driver negligence and recklessness.

And then there are more conservative transportation researchers like Steve Shladover of the University of California, Berkley, who say the reality is that fully autonomous cars are not on the horizon.

Shladover has been working on the idea of robocars for more than 40 years and he says the challenge of making them a reality is "10 orders of magnitude more complicated than (fully automated) commercial aviation." He says the hurdles in developing software that can handle lighting, weather and traffic condition variables are significant.

In a rather blunt statement about software bugs, Shladover offers this. "The old 'blue screen of death' won't just be a figure of speech anymore. It could mean that somebody actually dies."

And a Stanford University mechanical engineering professor says human error, the cause of most accidents, isn't eliminated with computers. It's only shifted from driver to programmer -- which brings us back to the question of where liability will rest.

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