It will soon be easy for self-driving cars to hide in plain sight. We shouldn’t let them.

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Last month, a video went viral that showed a San Francisco police officer, at night, stopping a car that didn’t have its headlights on. Except that this was no ordinary car. As the cop approaches the vehicle, someone off-camera shouts, “Ain’t nobody in it!” The car, operated by Cruise, a subsidiary of General Motors, is completely empty. Just as the cop turns back to his colleague, the robotaxi pulls away, driving across an intersection before pulling over. For two minutes the video shows the police officers wandering around the car, trying to work out what to do. 

The confusion is certainly amusing—an everyday encounter with something that would have seemed magical just a decade ago. But as these vehicles become more common, the question of how we know who’s driving will become increasingly serious. 

It will soon become easy for self-driving cars to hide in plain sight. The rooftop lidar sensors that currently mark many of them out are likely to become smaller. Mercedes vehicles with the new, partially automated Drive Pilot system, which carries its lidar sensors behind the car’s front grille, are already indistinguishable to the naked eye from ordinary human-operated vehicles.

Is this a good thing? As part of our Driverless Futures project at University College London, my colleagues and I recently concluded the largest and most comprehensive survey of citizens’ attitudes to self-driving vehicles and the rules of the road. One of the questions we decided to ask, after conducting more than 50 deep interviews with experts, was whether autonomous cars should be labeled. The consensus from our sample of 4,800 UK citizens is clear: 87% agreed with the statement “It must be clear to other road users if a vehicle is driving itself” (just 4% disagreed, with the rest unsure). 

We sent the same survey to a smaller group of experts. They were less convinced: 44% agreed and 28% disagreed that a vehicle’s status should be advertised. The question isn’t straightforward. There are valid arguments on both sides. 

We could argue that, on principle, humans should know when they are interacting with robots. That was the argument put forth in 2017, in a report commissioned by the UK’s

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