Individual states such as California, Arizona and Florida have highly permissive rules for testing but a national law would be necessary before the cars could operate across the US.
There is a risk that autonomous cars will not get smart enough, fast enough to operate across a broad geographic range. In the next few years, self-driving cars will be used in specific neighbourhoods or along specific routes, which is how many companies are testing them nowadays. However, if they are not able to quickly outgrow this phase, that would undercut much of their economic rationale.
The boom in autonomous car research has been fuelled by a kind of economic exuberance. An era of easy money has helped fund the great science project that is self-driving cars. The sector is highly dependent on this funding to continue, because none of the current tech is economically viable. In the event of a financial shock, the autonomous future could start to look far away.
Like all big disruptions, it’s impossible to foresee exactly how or when self-driving cars will have an impact.
Are they on the brink of a huge transformation, like the smartphone was 15 years ago? Or are they more like nuclear fusion, a grand idea that has never quite worked out?
Silicon Valley is certain it is the former, but this is a place that runs on enthusiasm, not realism.