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In this photo taken Wednesday, May 14, 2014, a row of Google self-driving cars are shown outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif.

Eric Risberg/AP

The technology that permits vehicles to drive themselves is evolving rapidly, but major changes will be required to laws and society's attitude toward the automobile before such vehicles take over the roads later this century.

The billions of dollars that auto makers, high-tech firms and suppliers are spending developing autonomous vehicles have put the technology ahead of the legal and ethical framework that needs to be established, Markus Auerbach, who heads the San Francisco research office of luxury auto maker Audi AG.

"The machine needs a frame for decisions," Mr. Auerbach said Friday in Toronto during a conference on connected and autonomous vehicles. "The car is one of the first consumer products where we feel it. It's not like a phone. A phone is not a weapon. A car out of control is a weapon."

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That sums up one of the key areas that needs to be studied carefully before autonomous vehicles hit roads and highways in major numbers: Can computers and technology make the split-second decisions that drivers make regularly when they're at the wheel?

Millions of vehicles already on the road have sensors that allow cars to notify drivers when they're edging into another lane, help them with cruise control or even allow them to park themselves.

Auto makers will need more as the era of autonomous vehicles get closer.

"We're going to need an awful lot of sensors," Earl Hughson, chief executive officer of Invotronics Inc., an Ontario-based automotive electronics firm, told the conference, which was put on by the Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association of Canada and the Ontario government.

"People are really good sensors," Mr. Hughson said.

He said he has seen autonomous cars sit at roundabouts for hours waiting to move.

Autonomous vehicles pose a difficult challenge for Audi AG, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and other luxury auto makers that have built their brand reputations in large part on driving characteristics and the relationship between the car and the driver. BMW's long-time slogan is: The Ultimate Driving Machine.

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Asked how all the hype around autonomous vehicles differs from predictions years ago that hybrid vehicles and battery-powered cars would have taken over the market by now – they're still just a fraction – Mr. Auerbach said an electric propulsion system is effectively an organ transplant on a vehicle.

"With an autonomous car, you have perhaps a pet," he said. It could be sent to pick up children at school, fetch groceries at a supermarket or drive off on its own to find parking after delivering someone to a downtown meeting where there is no parking nearby.

"This is completely different behaviour. You have a completely different relationship to a car."

Ontario is trying to make sure it gets in the forefront of development of such vehicles, the province's Economic Development Minister Brad Duguid said.

The province will allow testing of autonomous vehicles on its roads and highways, although any such vehicle is required to have a driver at the wheel while it's in motion.

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