5 key questions Google needs to answer about its driverless cars

The concept of driverless automobiles is cool and futuristic, and Google is investing a lot of time and money, but there are many important questions the company has to answer before anyone can take its cars seriously. Here are five of them.

driverless car next prototype

When was the last time your computer crashed? How long has it been since you needed to take your car to the repair shop? The answer to both of these questions is probably not that long. What brings these seemingly unrelated points to mind is this: Google's been trumpeting the safety record of its driverless cars, and the media's been falling all over itself to herald a new automotive era.

It's important to remember that these cars are being tested — and more importantly — maintained under ideal conditions that real-world auto owners won't be able to duplicate. And when things go wrong, whether it's the fault of the driverless car or the other party, we're all going to see a storm of litigation that will keep lawyers fat and happy for decades.

To be fair, the safety record of Google's test car has so far been excellent, as documented in the first of its periodic reports on the issue. However, these are the very early days, and I have a lot of questions about how autonomous vehicles can be maintained in the real world by real owners. Here are five questions that Google needs to answer before driverless cars hit the road at any sort of significant scale. (I already sent the queries to Google, and I'll update this post accordingly when I hear back.)

Google has a cadre of mechanics who are keeping the mechanical parts of its car, including cameras needed to monitor the road, in great condition. But ordinary drivers don't always stay on top of auto maintenance. What will happen when equipment starts to fail, or when drivers neglect maintenance?

Who is going to train today's mechanics to work on these extremely complex vehicles? Google? Even if car dealers get up to speed quickly, will drivers have to take their cars to specific, expensive dealers instead of their own trusted mechanics?

Software is obviously key to the safe operation of a driverless car, and software is notoriously fallible. If the software crashes, or is corrupted or hacked, will the car's navigation system be disabled? Such a scenario could give new meaning to the phrase "blue screen of death."

Just how reliable are driverless cars? Google hasn't said how many times it has had to take one off the road because of software crashes or hardware failures.

How will insurance companies and the courts handle a wave of driverless cars? Imagine the litigation when a driverless cars has a serious accident. Is the driver or the software at fault? The onboard computer, perhaps? Or the special hardware? How do you insure all of that?

Driverless cars may well be a success at some later date, but until these five questions, and many more, are answered, the nuts behind the wheel will still be you and me.

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