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Car automation moves forward, but legal issues remain

Los Angeles Times/MCT–The Nissan Leaf is cruising at 35 mph when a pedestrian jumps into the roadway.

But there’s no one at the controls. Instead, radar, lasers and cameras recognize the pedestrian — actually a dummy shoved into the road by an engineer. Computers order the car to slam the brakes and swerve, avoiding a collision.

The recent demonstration at a former military base in Irvine underscored just how far automakers have come in developing cars that drive themselves. Car companies including Nissan, General Motors and Mercedes have logged thousands of miles of successful tests, with an eye toward selling autonomous vehicles by 2020.

Nissan’s test provided a vivid display of what’s already possible: The Leaf dropped an occupant at the “store,” then proceeded to drive itself down a parking row, stop for an SUV driven by a human, and back into a space.

But the technology is just one of many challenges. Convincing consumers, regulators, insurers and lawyers that autonomous vehicles are safe — and determining who pays when they crash — could wrap their future in a Gordian knot.

“It is uncharted waters,” said James Yukevich, a Los Angeles attorney who defends the auto industry from product liability lawsuits. “I don’t think this is an area very many people have thought much about.”

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