Slowly rolling out onto city streets, self-driving cars are testing their driving chops in Silicon Valley, Helsinki, London and a few dozen other isolated locations around the globe – and the expectation is that their numbers will only swell.

With those eerily empty cars come questions about everything from traffic patterns (will we still need stop lights if cars can communicate?) to insurance (who pays for an autonomous car’s accident?).

And then there’s the question of safety.

“Computers don’t get drunk,” said Stephen Zoepf, executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS). “There are a sweeping group of accidents that will go away.” But we still don’t know the kinds of mistakes autonomous cars will make instead.

It’s these kinds of questions – and the mechanics, algorithms and policies that go with them – that need to be resolved before humans can completely kick their respective feet up on the dashboard and zone out.

Zoepf and Chris Gerdes, who directs both CARS and the Revs program at Stanford, have said we’re about 90 percent of the way to our driverless future. It’s the remaining 10 percent that teams of Stanford faculty and students from across engineering, psychology and law are working to address.

(Image credit: Norbert von der Groeben)

Driverless cars in the world

Removing a driver from behind the wheel takes away more than just the physical responses. It also eliminates the complex decision-making that goes into even routine journeys – choosing whether to swerve into a neighboring lane to avoid a possible obstacle or navigating ambiguous intersections.

These kinds of decisions come down to algorithms that emulate a driver’s morals, but who gets to decide what those are? Engineers? Policymakers? Car manufacturers? Those conversations are taking place now among ethicists, philosophers and engineers who are debating these issues even as the new standards are being developed.

Uber self-driving cars, liability and regulation

The first fatality involving a self-driving Uber car was reported in Tempe, Arizona. As new autonomous technologies develop, offering us self-driving cars, trains, buses and drone deliveries, what are the legal issues? And what regulation is needed? Stanford Law School Professor Robert Rabin answers some of these questions.

Exploring the ethics behind self-driving cars

How do you code ethics into autonomous automobiles? And who is responsible when things go awry?

​The future of artificial intelligence and self-driving cars

​Stanford professors discuss their innovative research and the new technologies that will transform lives in the 21st century.

Stanford professors discuss ethics involving driverless cars

Self-driving technology presents vast ethical challenges and questions. Several professors and interdisciplinary groups at Stanford who are tackling this issue  offer their perspectives on the topic.

The everyday ethical challenges of self-driving cars

Johannes Himmelreich writes for The Conversation about the kinds of everyday situations that pose ethical challenges for self-driving cars.

In two years, there could be 10 million self-driving cars on the roads

A laboratory at Stanford is working madly to keep us safe in that future.

Stanford researchers teach human ethics to autonomous cars

Stanford engineers are creating algorithms to instruct self-driving cars how to make decisions that come intuitively to humans.

Taking back control of an autonomous car affects human steering behavior

When human drivers retake control of an autonomous car, the transition could be problematic, depending on how conditions have changed since they were last at the wheel.

Stanford engineering students teach autonomous cars to avoid obstacles

The best way to survive a car accident is to avoid collisions in the first place. Professor Chris Gerdes' engineering students are developing algorithms and pop-up obstacles that could lead to safe autonomous driving.

Commentary: We’re asking the wrong question about self-driving cars

Stephen M. Zoepf argues that wondering what went wrong in a self-driving car accident might not be as important as asking whether a human could have avoided the accident.

(Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Mechanical eyes and reflexes

Backup cameras. Parking assist. Collision alert. Even mid-range cars today are loaded with cameras, sensors and technologies that make driving safer, but they still rely on a human in the passenger seat.

Taking these technologies to a level where they could independently and safely control all aspects of a car’s journey will require next-generation tools to act as the car’s eyes, ears and even its reflexes, making split second decisions with often ambiguous information.

Some of those new technologies are under development now, but many won’t come out of car research, per se, but from decades of work on autonomous robots roaming far out of human sight on Earth and across the solar system. These free-wheeling robots need the same kinds of powerful cameras and sensors as cars to keep them safe and on task. Other technologies come from work in batteries and solar cells, which may eventually power these cars, or from advances in computer imaging that allow cars to differentiate between lethal obstacles and fluttering plastic bags.

Technique can see objects hidden around corners

Someday your self-driving car could react to hazards before you even see them, thanks to a laser-based imaging technology being developed by Stanford researchers that can peek around corners.

A new way to improve solar cells can also benefit self-driving cars

By figuring out how to help solar cells capture more photons, a team of engineers unexpectedly improved the collision-avoidance systems of autonomous cars.

Big advance in wireless charging of moving electric cars

Stanford scientists have developed a way to wirelessly deliver electricity to moving objects, technology that could one day charge electric vehicles and personal devices like medical implants and cell phones.

Traveling in the age of driverless cars

A team of Stanford researchers explain why completing the last few miles to our self-driving future is “devilishly difficult.”

Space robot technology helps self-driving cars and drones on Earth

Space robots that are traveling through space, hauling debris and exploring distant asteroids, may hold the technological key to problems facing drones and autonomous cars here on Earth.

New camera designed by Stanford researchers could improve robot vision and virtual reality

Stanford engineers have developed a 4D camera with an extra-wide field of view. They believe this camera can be better than current options for close-up robotic vision and augmented reality.

Autonomous robotics class integrates theory and practice

Students programmed robots to autonomously navigate an unknown cityscape and aid in a simulated rescue of animals in peril in a class that mimics the programming needed for autonomous cars or robots of the future.

Self-driving drifting car
(Image credit: Dave Bush)

Test cars

The next generation of scientists, engineers, programmers and, sometimes, welders are honing their skills as students working on Stanford’s own fleet of autonomous cars.

Testing their work on the track, the group is perfecting not just the mechanics of how their cars operate but the algorithms for steering the cars with the fluidity of a professional driver. Although track racing isn’t the group’s ultimate goal, algorithms that can safely navigate tight turns at high speeds or compensate for variable traction on the fly are more prepared to handle the rigors of city streets and dicey weather.

Introducing MARTY, Stanford’s self-driving, electric, drifting DeLorean

Stanford engineers built an autonomous DeLorean capable of stable, precise drifting at large angles in order to study how cars perform in extreme situations.

Shelley, Stanford’s robotic racecar, hits the track

The self-driving Audi TTS hit 120 mph on a recent track test. With new research on professional drivers’ brain activity, the car’s performance could get even better.

Autonomous car drives Stanford engineers’ quest for highway safety

Understanding how an autonomous race car adjusts its throttle and brakes and makes use of the friction of its tires at high speed could inform the development of automatic collision avoidance software for the situations at the speeds at which most car crashes occur.

Shelley, Stanford’s robotic car, goes before the cameras

The autonomous car Shelley did a workout at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds in San Jose, and members of the media were there to watch.

Stanford’s robotic Audi to brave Pikes Peak without a driver

The Center for Automotive Research at Stanford has developed a new contender for the Pikes Peak course: a robotic car that drives itself.