Some number of years from now, the technology may exist for cars to drive themselves. This could save thousands of lives a year (90 percent of fatal car accidents involve human error).
But getting the technology right won't be enough. Governments and courts will have to figure out lots of new legal and regulatory issues. One key question: If a driverless car crashes, who's liable?
"It's absolutely the case that after the first accident involving an automated vehicle, there will be an automated ambulance chaser following," says Robert Hartwig, president of the Insurance Information Institute.
The auto industry is aware of the legal risk. "We have great exposure as an industry in terms of product liability," says Dan Gage of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "And I think as an industry ... most of us suspect that there will always be someone in that driver's seat."
Jeff Dial, an Arizona legislator, introduced a bill last year that would update Arizona law to cover driverless cars.
"After I introduced the bill, then suddenly all the insurance companies started approaching me with the questions of the liability," he says. "The more you deal with this issue, the more the issue grows and grows."
One possible solution comes from the vaccine industry.
In the 1980s, the rising threat of liability prompted vaccine manufacturers to pull out of the business. So Congress stepped in and created a new system for people who are injured by vaccines. Cases are handled in special hearings, and victims are paid out of a fund created by a special tax on vaccines.
With the threat of liability reduced, more companies started making vaccines again.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Here's another potentially sobering thought: driverless vehicles. Google is testing a driverless car now, and several automakers are working on similar technology. This has caused a scramble to update transportation laws in states across the country. But in the process of coming up with new regulations, state governments have run into a problem. Cory Turner of NPR's Planet Money team reports on the word at the center of that problem.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Liability. To explain, here's a movie analogy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY")
KEIR DULLEA: (as Dave) Open the pod bay doors, Hal.
DOUGLAS RAIN: (as HAL) I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
TURNER: In the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey," HAL is an intelligent machine that controls the spaceship. In this scene, HAL is malfunctioning and trying to kill Dave, an astronaut - a classic scene from film history and a lesson from the brave new world of product liability. In the future, we may all have our own version of HAL in our cars, driving for us. And that raises a question: right now, when we're in an accident, by and large we're liable. But if HAL is driving - what then?
DAN GAGE: For us, it's clear. We have great exposure as an industry in terms of product liability.
TURNER: That's Dan Gage. He works for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. It makes sense. Automakers would be much more exposed to liability if they're not just making your car but driving it too. With a human still in the driver's seat, it's easier for automakers to argue in case of an accident that their technology didn't fail, the human did. And this tension is likely to continue.
GAGE: And I think as an industry, while there isn't full consensus on this, I think most of us suspect that there will always be someone in that driver's seat.
TURNER: Still, we're already seeing cases of the human in that driver's seat arguing in court I didn't do it, my car did. Bryant Walker Smith is a trained engineer and lawyer. He's at Stanford, where he spent a lot of time studying automated cars, and he says my car did it could become more and more persuasive.
BRYANT WALKER SMITH: Where more of the decisions are being made by software than by humans in real-time behind the wheel, manufacturers will probably face an increasing share of liability costs.
TURNER: Robert Hartwig is president of the Insurance Information Institute.
ROBERT HARTWIG: It's absolutely the case that after the first accident involving an automated vehicle, there will be an automated ambulance chaser following.
TURNER: And this fight over who should be liable, it makes it hard to write laws for a driverless future.
JEFF DIAL: After I introduce the bill, then suddenly all the insurance companies started approaching me with the questions of the liability.
TURNER: Jeff Dial is one of those state legislators working on an automated car bill. He's in Arizona. And to be clear, he's a big fan of the technology. Even so, that bill he introduced last year, it's still in committee.
DIAL: And it seems like the more you deal with this issue, the more the issue grows and grows and the number of people that you're working with trying to figure this out.
TURNER: It's important to figure out because the faster we can get ourselves out of the driver's seat, likely the better. In 2011, more than 32,000 people in the U.S. died as a result of motor vehicle crashes. And roughly 90 percent of crashes involve some kind of human error - 90 percent. Experts who study this say automation has vastly improved safety in the airline industry and that it could do the same for driving. But who's liable could complicate things.
SMITH: We may have a technology that would be societally very lucrative but for individual companies may be very unattractive because of liability reasons.
TURNER: Bryant Walker Smith of Stanford says it's way too early to know if this will happen with automated cars, but we have seen it before, in the 1980s, when liability suits were on the rise against vaccine manufacturers.
SMITH: Companies producing the vaccines had decided that because of the threat of lawsuits and the relatively low profit potential of these vaccines, it just wasn't - it didn't pay to make them anymore.
TURNER: So Congress stepped in and created a fund to compensate the injured and protect vaccine makers - one possible answer to a problem that doesn't even exist yet. Truly automated cars are years away, and good or bad, that means humans are still very much in the driver's seat. Cory Turner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.