Back in 1958, Arthur Radebaugh started a comic series that set out visions of the future called Closer than we think; According to Matt Novak of Paleofuture, it "gave people a look at some of the most wonderfully techno-utopian visions that America had to offer". One of those visions was of a self-driving car, and it really is now closer than we think.
Along with the technological problems to be solved are the legal ones, including the question of whether you can actually have a car without a driver. Google has concluded that the biggest problem with the self-driving car is the person in it, and wants to build them without steering wheels or brake pedals which software can handle but meatware screws up. Google "expresses concern that providing human occupants of the vehicle with mechanisms to control things like steering, acceleration, braking... could be detrimental to safety because the human occupants could attempt to override the (self-driving system's) decisions." The State of California didn't like this idea and ruled last year that the cars should be capable of having humans drive them, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the regulatory body for the whole country, appears to be open to the idea.
Last November Google asked the NHTSA for a ruling, in particular noting that their proposed car...
...is designed to perform all safety-critical driving functions and monitor roadway conditions for an entire trip. Such a design anticipates that the driver will provide destination or navigation input, but is not expected to be available for control at any time during the trip. This includes both occupied and unoccupied vehicles. By design, safe operation rests solely on the automated vehicle system.
The NHTSA responded in a letter recently, mostly positively. The key point of contention is whether the car's self driving system (SDS) can be considered a driver; the key issue is a rule, S5.3.1, that all cars must have foot operated brakes.
Google argues that because the SDS will control all aspects of braking, it would not be necessary or beneficial for safety for a human occupant to be able to brake the vehicle....We agree that Google's SDS may be deemed to be the driver for purposes of compliance with these provisions. Given that there will be no foot (or even hand) control to be activated. indeed, given that the SDS will have neither feet nor hands to activate brakes, we understand that Google's described vehicle design would not comply with S5.3.1 as written.
This is very big; it lays out a legal path for approving the cars, and may well set the pattern for dealing with other issues of insurance and liability. On The Verge, one expert, Kelley Blue Book automotive industry analyst Karl Brauer, looks at the impact:
The intricate maze of legal questions surrounding autonomous vehicles is as big a hurdle to their arrival as the remaining technological challenges. However, if NHTSA is prepared to name artificial intelligence as a viable alternative to human-controlled vehicles it could substantially streamline the process of putting autonomous vehicles on the road.
Arthur Radebaugh was a little ahead of himself, but the self-driving car really is closer than we think. Planners and city-builders had better get ready.