Federal legal clarity is also essential. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is planning to study the issue, should be transparent with the public and the auto industry about any plans to update its rulebook, and when it intends to act.
In doing so, it should remember that there is a wide spectrum of automated technology that runs from anti-lock brakes to Google's driverless car and beyond, so regulation must be flexible. And it should take special care not to inhibit innovation in a quickly evolving field. This is easier said than done, but one approach would be to focus more on conceptual standards — such as requiring that autonomous cars not exceed a certain number of accidents per million miles — rather than mandating specific safety features.
Next, policymakers will have to devise clear rules for determining liability. Should the driver be held responsible for his vehicle? The manufacturer? Perhaps a third party that designed an app for a car that malfunctioned? Resolving such questions will be incredibly messy. A smart first step would be to require event data recorders — "black boxes" that contain information about a car's operation before a crash — in all autonomous cars, with adequate privacy safeguards.
Congress should also consider the model offered by the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Autonomous vehicles may in the future be judged an essential social good. But, as with vaccines, the potential for rare but extremely costly lawsuits could inhibit manufacturers from meeting demand. To ease such concerns, Congress could direct claims against autonomous-car manufacturers to a special federal court outside the normal tort system, and establish a fund to compensate accident victims.
Finally, officials at all levels must manage expectations, and plan realistically. Autonomous cars won't be perfect, and they will surely cause havoc in many cases. Their benefits may also be exaggerated in the public mind. In the best long-term case, a commute like the one described above — faster, safer, more productive — could become a reality. But not soon. In fact, as Smith argues, high demand for autonomous cars could in the medium term prevent heralded reductions in congestion, emissions and sprawl.