Volvo makes self-driving liability pledge that could set Silicon Valley standard

Volvo promised Thursday that it will take “full liability” whenever its cars are in self-driving mode, a public relations move that could allay consumer fears of robot vehicles and set a standard for its rivals in Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

Volvo CEO Håkan Samuelsson made the announcement in a written statement and during a talk Thursday afternoon in Washington, D.C., that also pushed the United States to establish federal guidelines for the emerging technology that states such as California are scrambling to regulate on their own.

The Swedish carmaker, which for decades has branded itself as safe and dependable, is not the first company to make such a pledge, but the boldness of its statement made waves on Thursday.

Volvo has already partnered with the Swedish government on what it describes as the “world’s first large-scale autonomous drive project” set to launch in 2017 with 100 self-driving Volvos on public roads in Gothenburg, Sweden.

Google’s own public test project, which recently expanded from Mountain View to Austin, Tex., might also match or surpass Volvo’s scale by 2017. Google employs 219 test car drivers in California who ride around in 73 vehicles, including 50 of the two-seat prototype cars that the search giant unleashed this summer. (Note: Numbers updated from earlier version of this post.)

Those cars operate under rules set last year set by the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Ten companies — Volvo is not one of them — now have permits to test autonomous vehicles on public streets in the state. The DMV is now developing another set of rules to guide the future consumer use of autonomous vehicles.

California legislation often sets a precedent followed by other U.S. states, but Samuelsson warned Thursday that a confusing patchwork of state-by-state laws could threaten America’s leadership in the development and introduction of such vehicles.

“The absence of one set of rules means car makers cannot conduct credible tests to develop cars that meet all the different guidelines of all 50 U.S. states,” he said in the statement.

Above: Image of a self-driving car courtesy of Volvo.


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