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January 17, 2013

Is the world prepared for the driverless car era? Are you?

Picture it. You slip into your car, recline and start reading the day's news on your smartphone. The vehicle accelerates, smoothly navigates traffic and seamlessly merges onto the freeway, without your lifting a finger.

All around you, other autonomous cars zoom by. Each operates safely at high speeds, halving your commute time. Each drives with precision, eliminating congestion and conserving fuel. Each respects pedestrians, avoids collisions and always takes the most efficient route. Your car drops you at the office, then parks itself in a lot on the outskirts of town, where it awaits your summons at quitting time.

Such a glorious commute may be decades away. But the era of autonomous cars is fast approaching. Last week, Audi and Toyota both made headlines with advances in automated driving. Google has been a much-publicized pioneer in the field. Automakers General Motors, Daimler and Nissan, among many others, have plans to automate their products to varying degrees.

And no wonder. Autonomous cars could create lucrative new businesses, spur welcome advances in public planning, vastly improve our quality of life, mitigate human error on the roads, and, not least, reduce the more than 30,000 annual driving fatalities in the United States alone. There will also be drawbacks and unintended consequences. That's why policy makers need to start planning for a future that seems to be arriving faster than we ever expected.

Three issues in particular require scrutiny.

First, we'll need a new legal and regulatory framework. State and federal driving laws obviously weren't written with this technology in mind, but as Bryant Walker Smith of Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society has persuasively argued, automated vehicles are almost certainly already legal throughout the U.S.

California, Florida and Nevada have already begun regulating them. Such laws will start important conversations: They'll acclimate regulators, transportation authorities and law enforcement to the new technology, and offer manufacturers some degree of predictability. State lawmakers should also develop common legal and technical definitions; words such as "driverless" and "automated" are often used blithely yet can mean very different things. And states should consider how they'll need to update their licensing and registration rules and revise traffic laws — for instance, by reducing following- distance requirements when appropriate — to better accommodate autonomous technology.

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