Fully autonomous vehicles could be seen in Phoenix this summer
Ford Motor Company representatives recently showed their latest innovation, a self-driving car, in downtown Phoenix.
The new autonomous vehicles, specially modified Ford Fusions, have been on a pair of tracks, including one in Wittman, Arizona, for several years. Now, they're heading from the track to the street.
Ford representatives said that these self-driving vehicles use a collection of onboard sensors to build a complete, 3D picture of the world around them. The result is driving that, according to some, is seamless enough that occupants quickly forget they're being driven by a computer.
By this summer, Ford intends to triple the size of the autonomous fleet and move into testing on open roads. However, three out of four Americans say they're not yet ready for the technology, according to a recent study conducted by Triple-A.
Ford hopes to start selling fully driverless cars by 2020, though that will depend on how quickly the technology can be improved and how soon the company can deal with environmental and regulatory issues.
California accident raises questions about self-driving technology
While Ford hasn't yet taken its autonomous vehicles to the street, Google's self-driving cars have been a common sight on roads in a few cities for some time. In February, one of those cars crashed into a bus on a street in Mountain View, California.
That accident wasn't the first one involving a self-driving car, but it was the first in which the autonomous vehicle, rather than the human driver of the other car, was responsible. Moreover, Google's own records say that human test drivers have prevented 13 other accidents by taking manual control of a self-driving car - and in 10 of those accidents, the autonomous vehicle would have been at fault.
Google plans on refining its autonomous driving system to avoid similar accidents in the future, and undoubtedly Ford and other manufacturers working on self-driving cars will take note as well. However, it's inevitable that self-driving cars will be involved in more accidents in the future, especially as manufacturers test them on highways, at night, in inclement weather and in other non-ideal driving conditions.
With regulations governing self-driving cars still in progress, it's still unclear exactly what a legal case arising from such an accident would look like. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently shed some light on the situation by announcing that an autonomous vehicle could itself be considered a driver for legal purposes. That means the car itself could be held liable for the accident, perhaps leading to a product liability claim against the manufacturer.
The hope is that by the time they're ready for the road, driverless cars will be at least as safe as vehicles driven by responsible human operators. Whether that actually turns out to be the case remains to be seen.