Another View: Time is now to regulate self-driving vehicles of the future

The “Inspiration,” the first autonomous, self-driving commercial truck to be cleared for U.S. highways, cruised across Hoover Dam last week.

It’s unlikely you’ll end up next to a giant 18-wheeler with nobody in the driver’s seat, though, at least for a few years. The trucks are permitted in just the one state and only in test-phase, and for the foreseeable future that seat will remain filled.

Daimler Trucks North America’s first iteration is more a souped-up cruise control than an actual self-driving vehicle. The technology, the Highway Pilot, allows the truck to keep pace with vehicles ahead of it and maintain the center of the lane on the highway. The rest of the driving — on all surface roads, navigating city streets or during any bad weather — will be done by a human being.

The trucking industry is interested in the promise of less-fatigued drivers, fewer accidents and increased fuel-efficiency. Anyone who’s been stuck in stop-and-go traffic knows how exhausting it can be, and long haulers have to be on the road for, well, the long haul.

Meanwhile, Google acknowledged Monday that 11 of its vehicles have been in “minor accidents” and “fender-benders,” which seems scary, until it’s pointed out those accidents occurred over 1.7 million miles of road tests and none, supposedly, were the fault of the cars. Instead, the fault reportedly lies with inattentive drivers and human error, exactly the dangers proponents of the technology say self-driving cars will keep us safe from.

Chris Urmson, director of Google’s self-driving car program, also noted that there were several instances where the self-driving cars actually avoided accidents with other vehicles and cyclists.

Aside from Nevada, where the trucks are being tested, only California, Florida and Michigan have permitted testing on their roads.

There are still lots of questions, chief among them being who’s liable when the car inevitably is to blame.

Lawmakers and transportation officials in Washington and Idaho must pay attention, because this technology, even if it is as safe as companies promise, is moving quickly. Regulations will need to be in place to avoid meeting it head-on.