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The History and Present Challenges of Self-Driving Cars

By Texas Personal Injury Lawyer on July 30, 2023

Driving down an empty highway in a high-tech autonomous Tesla vehicle. Young man drives along a scenic rural motorway hands-free in a modern self-steering car.

The history of self-driving cars is a long one. It began in the 16th century with Leonardo DaVinci, who created a small, three-wheeled, self-propelled cart that incorporated a pre-programmable steering wheel and springs for propulsion. Since that time, further developments have been made by more modern vehicle developers, including:

  • Industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes showcased a semi-autonomous vehicle that traveled using radio control and magnets embedded in the pavement at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
  • Researchers at Stanford University developed a small cart to navigate on the surface of the moon using a basic form of computer vision in 1961.
  • Mechanical engineers at the University of Tsukuba in Japan developed a passenger vehicle that could drive autonomously at up to 20 mph in 1977.
  • Researchers at the University of Parma in Italy made further progress in the mid-nineties.
  • The Eureka PROMETHEUS Project, funded by mostly European governments in the late 1980s and early 1990s, culminated in 1994 with a 620-mile hands-free drive.
  • The U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense funded the Autonomous Land Vehicle Project in the 1980s, in which an early form of lidar (light detection and ranging) was used to navigate vehicles off-road.
  • Stanford and Carnegie Mellon Universities competed for AV leadership in the early 2000s.
  • Google began the development of self-driving technology in 2009.
  • Major auto manufacturers, including Ford, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz, and rideshare companies, such as Uber, began investing in self-driving technology by 2010.

Today, Tesla is the closest company to putting autonomous cars on the market. There are no fully autonomous vehicles commercially available for purchase at this time.

What Are the Potential Benefits of Self-Driving Cars?

Autonomous vehicles can enhance road safety by eliminating or reducing human error, improving traffic flow, and mitigating the impact of reckless driving. This technology may also provide accessibility and increased mobility for individuals with disabilities or those who are unable to drive. Other potential benefits include improved fuel efficiency and reduced emissions.

What Are the Legal and Regulatory Challenges of Self-Driving Cars?

One of the main challenges with self-driving cars is that, to a greater extent, state and federal laws fail to specify who is liable for accidents caused by these vehicles. There is no clear-cut definition of who the driver is, which makes it difficult to determine liability. The key decision-maker and operator for most self-driving vehicles is software.

What Are the Safety Concerns Regarding Self-Driving Cars?

Vehicles with partially automated driver assist systems, including 273 Teslas, have been involved in nearly 400 crashes in 11 months, as reported by NPR. These and other crashes have occurred while vehicles were using driver-assist systems. A total of 11 people were killed in U.S. crashes involving vehicles using automated driving systems during four months in 2022, as reported by CBS News.

Ethical Considerations with Self-Driving Cars

The “trolley problem” is a thought experiment in ethics involving a fictional scenario in which an onlooker has the choice of saving five people about to be hit by a trolley by diverting the trolley to kill one person. Self-driving cars are the most relevant form of the trolley problem today. Designers, programmers, and engineers decide what calculations are optimal in each potential situation long before self-driving cars are manufactured.

Consult an Experienced Houston Car Accident Lawyer

Self-driving cars hold immense promise for transforming transportation and improving road safety, although they face significant challenges on the path to widespread adoption. Despite their new and innovative technology, we know accidents happen.

Our Sugar Land team has been representing injured victims across Texas for over a decade, with a history of success for our clients. If you have been injured in a crash involving a self-driving car, contact DK Law to speak with a skilled Houston car accident attorney.

Call us at (281) 402-8856 to schedule a free consultation today.


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