PhotoSo let's say you're tooling down the road in one of Google's self-driving cars. A motorcycle policeman pulls you over and says you blew through a stop sign. Who gets the ticket?

Google thinks it should, since it is Google's software that is in control of the car. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) agrees, in a letter to Google.

But if that makes it sound like self-driving cars are just about ready to come streaming onto the 405, think again. Tests in Northern climes are finding that the autonomous vehicles are not much better than humans when it comes to dealing with snow and ice.

Back to the feds for a minute. NHTSA has, in effect, weighed in on the side of Google and other would-be self-driving manufacturers, opposing the position taken by the California DMV, which has required that there be a licensed driver in every self-driving car, ready to take over if things go south.

"We agree with Google its [self-driving vehicle] will not have a 'driver' in the traditional sense that vehicles have had drivers during the last more than one hundred years," NHTSA said in its letter to Chris Urmson, director of Google's self-driving unit. "If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the 'driver' as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving." 

It's understandable that this might remind you of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision a few years back that corporations have all the rights of human beings. It seems illogical at first, but perhaps it grows on you over time. 

Not trivial

It's not an idle question though. While some fledgling autonomous-vehicle makers plan to have things like steering wheels and brake pedals in their cars, Google doesn't. It wants its cars to be totally self-directed and, in fact, wants the humans to sit on their hands and stay out of the way.

Many traffic safety experts argue that this will reduce traffic accidents and the deaths and injuries that result from them. Personal injury lawyers, meanwhile, are understandably anticipating the day that they have the chance to slap a great big lawsuit on Google.

Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, says that while legal questions will remain, the NHTSA finding could help get self-driving cars on the road more quickly.

“Questions of fault and liability will remain, but if a computer driver has the same legal rights as a human driver it could allow car companies, and tech companies, to quickly deploy autonomous vehicles on public roads, both for testing purposes and even public use,” Brauer said in an email to ConsumerAffairs.

Frozen stiff

This all sounds good on a balmy day in Mountain View, but a Bloomberg report throws cold water -- or perhaps snowballs -- on the notion that self-driving cars are just about ready to roll from one corner of the earth to another.

It reports on a Volvo test of a self-driving XC90 SUV near the Arctic Circle. Everything was going along just fine until frozen snow flakes caked on the radar sensors that read the road. The car rolled to a halt while researchers went back to the drawing boards.

The solution: they moved the radar sensors inside, just behind the windshield. 

But while that may have solved the specific Volvo problem, there are many other questions that remain to be answered when one considers that roughly 70 percent of the American population lives in the snow belt. For example, lane markers get covered up by snow while radar beams reflect off falling snow flakes and produce false readings.

Ford says in a press release that it has developed a system that basically "memorizes" the road, helping to compensate for poor visiblity.

“It’s one thing for a car to drive itself in perfect weather,” said Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles. “It’s quite another to do so when the car’s sensors can’t see the road because it’s covered in snow. Weather isn’t perfect, and that’s why we’re testing autonomous vehicles in wintry conditions – for the roughly 70 percent of U.S. residents who live in snowy regions.”

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