The question in the title isn’t hypothetical. Google’s self-driving car project has now logged 300,000 miles without an accident. (H/T The Atlantic, which notes that Google apparently is only counting accidents that are the automated cars’ fault.) In the nearly 25 years I have been licensed to drive, I’m pretty confident in saying I have driven fewer than 300,000 miles. Does that mean the Google cars can take off the automobile equivalent of training wheels?
Not likely. As noted in The Atlantic article, 300,000 miles is actually not a large sample when considering the safety of a technology, one that could be used in hundreds of thousands of cars. The piece cites this analysis by Bryant Walker Smith, an engineer and lawyer at Stanford. He suggests Google has barely reached the halfway mark in being able to demonstrate with a 99 percent confidence level that their cars are crashing less frequently than conventional cars.
Putting aside the crash issue, it’s fair to say that Google cars are not anywhere close to being let loose on the roads. Because it’s not just about the crashing. There’s a host of other issues that need to be decided before you can let the car drive you to the store. They could include:
Liability: When there is a crash, and a self-driving car is at fault, what happens? Does a faulty algorithm bump up your insurance premium? Are you adding the computer as a driver on your policy?
Driver’s Licensing: How does a self-driving car address what it means to be a licensed driver? Would you need a special endorsement on your license? Do you need to retake a test when there’s a software upgrade?
Infrastructure: When a self-driving car goes wrong (and it will), what practices will be put in place in order to shut down the vehicle safely by the ‘driver’ or appropriate third party?
As you might guess by now, this adaptation is going to be a lot more complicated than getting used to Segway transporters (which are pretty much limited to fleet uses: tours, police, mail, etc.). By the time Google cars can more convincingly demonstrate a quality driving record, we may still not be ready. And I haven’t even addressed the issue of drivers being willing to let something else behind the wheel.