This morning, CEI’s resident transportation policy junkies — General Counsel Sam Kazman and myself — had the opportunity to test-ride Google’s prototype self-driving car. In October 2010, I wrote about the Google driverless car’s feat of secretly logging 140,000 miles on U.S. public roads without a single accident. Sam and I were able to ask questions about the car’s features, practical traffic concerns, and the future implications of driverless automobiles with respect to crash reduction, congestion mitigation, and air quality improvement.

Google’s car uses a wide variety of sensors that detect pedestrians, objects, and infrastructure in real time. It is the sustained rapid collection of conditions data that allows the car to slow or stop suddenly if a pedestrian enters the street, a car suddenly changes lanes or pulls away from the curb, or a lane is closed for construction or an event. It was quite impressive to see all of this happen right before our eyes…

But what of liability issues? Google does not seem too concerned, and after giving it some thought, neither am I. We already have event data recorders in new automobiles that can be used in both civil and criminal court cases to determine who or what is at fault — human or automotive system. Upgrading a car’s “black box” technology to accurately record who or what fails when it fails inside a driverless car, and then assigning liability accordingly, would not constitute a huge undertaking.