I'm not Jewish, so I'm no expert on the observation of Shabbat. But from what I can tell, an autonomous car should be totally cool with God. And I think I've got a Rabbi to back me up.
There are two problems with driving according to Halakha, or Jewish law. First, the Torah prohibits driving because it involves labor on the act of the driver. Second, it prohibits the kindling of fire on the Shabbat, and that includes starting an internal combustion engine or flicking an electrical switch.
An autonomous car could alleviate both of those problems. But as we've learned from a couple millennia of religious wars, interpreting the Word Of God brings up some issues.
Rabbi Yehoshua Looks equates self-driving cars to Shabbat elevators, which stop at every floor (or every other floor) so a practicing Jew doesn't have to make an electrical connection and piss off The Lord. But he takes it a step further, quoting a responsum on car use written by Rabbis Morris Adler, Jacob Agus, and Theodore Friedman in 1950 which says:
Refraining from the use of a motor vehicle is an important aid in the maintenance of the Shabbat spirit of repose. Such restraint aids, moreover, in keeping the members of the family together on the Shabbat. However, where a family resides beyond reasonable walking distance from the synagogue, the use of a motor vehicle for the purpose of synagogue attendance shall in no wise be construed as a violation of the Shabbat, but, on the contrary, such attendance shall be deemed an expression of loyalty to our faith.
Naturally, every observant Jew doesn't agree with this interpretation, and from an Orthodox perspective, you don't have to go to synagogue to pray – you can do it at home and still be besties with your savior.
But looking at it purely from a labor perspective, the Rabbi has a point.
In making the argument for autonomous cars, Look assumes a few things. First, that issues related to travel and carrying on Shabbat are observed. Second, that drivers can intervene in an emergency, and finally, that the "usage is preprogrammed". That last bit could be an issue, but let's assume that it's voice activated, which – at least from my uneducated perspective – doesn't violate Shabbat.
But back to the elevator comparison. According to Look:
What is intriguing about the Google vehicle is that it doesn't feel like a car. By removing the brakes, pedals and steering wheel, there is no driver, only passengers. The experience is of being transported in a way like a Shabbat elevator, minimizing the burden of getting from place to place. This point would have the Google vehicle seem permissible.
This is the same point many of us have made in the past. Google's self-driving car isn't a car, it's a robot. And that brings up the Golem.
Our own Jason Torchinsky really wanted to talk about Golems, so here he is:
I'm pretty sure that any self-driving car can be classified as a Golem, and work with the same rules that Rabbis of the past used to deal with Golems, whether they actually existed or not.
The first thing to realize is that golems, while traditionally made of clay, could really be made of almost anything artificial. For example, there's a reference to both the first female Golem and the first mechanical Golem in the story of mideval philosopher Solmon ibn Gabirol.
According to Jewish Ethics for the 21st Century, ibn Gabirol had a nasty skin condition, and needed some domestic help. So, he built a "woman" to keep his house for him – essentially a female Golem. Eventually, he was ordered by the local authorities to dismantle her because they suspected magic was used in the creation and that he may be using her for "lewd activities." He dismantled her in front of the authorities, "reducing her to the wood and hinges from which she was created."
This shows that not only might lonely guys be willing to fuck the most splintery and pinchy of all sex dolls, but that Golems may be created out of mechanical parts as well as clay. So, physically, an autonomous car should fit in the general Golem category.
Also, Golems cannot be counted in Minyans (a group of 10 men needed for prayer), it's been established, because the lack a soul. So, that means that these artificial beings are able to perform work that Jews with souls (which I think means all Jews except for Donald Sterling) would be forbidden to do on the Sabbath.
Commanding a Golem to perform tasks verbally should be acceptable as well. This can be established from both the traditions of Jews hiring a "Shabbos Goy," hired non-Jewish help to do things Jews are forbidden to do on the Sabbath, and from reports of famous Golem-makers like Rabbi Leow of Prague.
Even if the Golem tales are, in fact, just legends, the ways the Rabbis were said to have dealt with the Golems should still be valid. Golems have been established to accept verbal commands, as one of the very first references to what we would call a Golem is from this cryptic text in the Talmud:
Sanhedrin 65b describes Rava creating a man (gavra). He sent the man to Rav Zeira. Rav Zeira spoke to him, but he did not answer. Rav Zeira said, "You were created by the magicians; return to your dust."
So, it accepts vocal commands, and as the Rabbi Leow legends have shown, it was often used in place of a Shabbos Goy to perform tasks Jews could not. So, if we consider an autonomous car as a soul-less mechanical being capable of acting on vocal commands, then there is really no difference between it and a Golem. Which means a religious jew should be able to enter a previously-activated autonomous car, tell it a destination, and be ferried around without fear of braking any laws of Shabbat.
Of course, I'm no Rabbi, but I was Bar Mitzvah'd.
So a voice-activated autonomous car is basically a high-tech, robotic golem. And between that and the apt comparison of the elevator, Jews could have a case for self-driving cars. Whether that case will get you passed the pearly gates is way the hell outside my purview.