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Road rage at driverless cars? It's possible

Paul Sakuma / AP

Stanford graduate student Mick Kritayakirana shows the computer system inside a driverless car on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, Calif.

The road to a future where we jump in our cars, enter a destination, and let them do the driving could be filled with rage, according to an expert on driverless car technology.

For starters, driverless cars will likely be programmed to obey all traffic laws. They won't speed and will always come to a complete stop at stop signs, for example.

Throw just a few of those law-abiding robots on roads clogged with 250 million human-controlled cars, and there's bound to be some shaken fists, or worse.

"Let's face it, … [we] don’t always follow exactly the traffic rules," Sven Beiker, the executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University in California, told me Friday. 

"An autonomous car would probably need to because there's a company putting code into a system and that obviously then becomes a legal action."

20-year vision?
The road rage-at-the-robot scenario came up as we discussed the evolution of driverless car technology and how we might eventually realize the dream of texting while the robot does the driving.

It'll likely remain a dream, Beiker said, for the foreseeable future.

Some experts in the field, he noted, call it a 20-year vision. "Quite frankly, if someone says 20 years, that's basically telling you we don't really know," he said.

But, driver-assisted technologies such as cars that can park themselves, maintain a safe distance from other cars on the road, and have other crash-avoidance technologies are increasingly available on cars today.

All of these technologies, Beiker said, still require drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. But those aids are becoming more common, and not just in luxury models.

"These things are definitely happening, and basically you can expect something new every year in that regard," he noted.

Technological, legal, cultural hurdles
When the field will reach the point where we can relinquish control of the car will depend, in part, on further technological developments, a new set of laws — and a cultural shift.

From the technological standpoint, cars can and do drive themselves today (see the Google Street View cars, for example). So, in a sense, we are technologically there.

But a future of roads full of driverless cars would be enhanced by the development and deployment of a wireless communication system that lets the robots anywhere on the road talk to each other.

Such a system, for example, would let cars know if the car in front of it was planning to turn left or right, as well as provide points of traffic congestion that alert robot drivers to alternate routes.

Think of such a system as a radio traffic report on steroids.

Roads full of autonomous vehicles all talking to each other could be much safer than they are today, Beiker noted. After all, human error contributes to 95 percent of all accidents. 

But, "no technology is 100 percent safe," he said.

When a wreck happens, who gets the blame? That's unclear today. Stanford's automotive center has a legal fellow, Bryant Walker Smith, on staff precisely to help answer these types of questions.

It'll probably shake out one of two ways: Either the car owner and/or passenger will be legally responsible just as drivers are today for most accidents, or the manufacturer will be.

But until such laws are written — and there are some are in the works, such as in Nevada where a law has been passed to make driverless cars legal — it's unlikely that autonomous cars will rule the roads.

And then there's the question of how to deploy the robots once we're technologically and legally ready. Perhaps at first autonomous cars will be restricted to one lane of travel on certain roads, such HOV lanes.

"But mixing the conventional vehicle and the autonomous vehicles?" Beiker said. "That's quite a challenge."

More on driverless car technology:

John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.

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