(NBC News) The self-driving car industry is facing tough questions this week after an Uber autonomous vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona.
"This will cause regulatory bodies to start scrutinizing the companies and seeing whether they are really as safe as the companies' say they are," said Dara Kerr of CNET.
There's often a human back-up or safety operator.
"Uber has fully autonomous cars on the road, but every single one of them has at least one safety operator in the car. It has yet to put cars on the road with no one inside them," said Kerr.
California regulators plan to allow self-driving cars without anyone behind the wheel starting April 2, 2018.
Arizona already allows autonomous cars to operate without a driver, and the state's hands-off approach has attracted a surge of tech companies.
Members of Congress passed the SELF DRIVE act, giving the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration the power to regulate vehicle design and performance, but state governments ultimately have the authority over registration and licensing.
"Right now, regulators face a trade-off. In the long term, we believe self-driving cars will save tens of thousands of lives per year. That's the promise. That's why regulators have allowed these tests to occur, but in short term, they just aren't smart enough yet," said Chris Nicholson, an artificial intelligence expert with SkyMind.
Companies say testing these self-driving cars on public roads is vital to allow the systems to gather data and adapt to real-world situations.
"The more data you give them, the smarter they get. Unfortunately, they're still learning and they make mistakes and making mistakes in the real world can have real consequences," said Nicholson.
Determining who's at fault for those consequences is a challenge for the emerging world of autonomous tech.
The Arizona executive order loosening restrictions on self-driving cars, stipulates that the corporation operating the vehicles would be responsible if one of its self-driving cars negligently kills a person.
But determining parameters of liability will likely play out in a plethora of litigation to set legal precedents.
The Uber investigation is still ongoing, but industry experts say this isn't going to kill the self-driving car movement.
"Self-driving cars are the future. You can fight it, you can slow it down, but you can't stop it," said Nicholson.
Many futurists predict that fully autonomous cars will make up the majority of vehicles by 2040, potentially making a driver's license and insurance obsolete.
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