Caltech scientists debate the debut of self-driving cars, spelling out potential problems

PASADENA >> In the next six to eight years, self-driving vehicles may become a reality. And with computers behind the wheel instead of humans, traffic fatalities could sharply decrease, a panel of scientists speaking at a roundtable at Caltech Wednesday night said.

But what happens after a mass adoption of self-driving vehicles remains a ball of confusion swirling around legal issues, ethics, liability, government regulations and social acceptance.

Some on the panel raised questions about those issues, while sometimes leaving the audience of about 200 at the science-based university’s Lees-Kubota Lecture Hall searching for answers.

“The technical problems will be mostly solved in the next couple of years. The bigger issue is how do we deal with liability,” said Paul Lienert, who covers the automotive industry for Reuters and has a doctoral degree in business with an emphasis on electric vehicles.

Pietro Perona, a Caltech professor of electrical engineering, presented the following scenario: A car driven by a human runs a red light heading straight for the autonomous vehicle. Since it knows how to avoid collisions, the autonomous car swerves onto the sidewalk, avoiding the crash. But in the process the vehicle runs over a little boy.

If statistics show only a few accidents with autonomous cars, will the public accept some traffic fatalities? And if not, will people blame the car company and sue?

“How do we trust that vehicle?” Perona asked, saying…

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