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The Law of Self-Driving Cars

On November 12, 2015, Mountain View police pulled over a Google Self-Driving car because it was driving 24 mph in a 35 mph zone. Google has explained that they set the maximum speed of their test vehicles to 25 mph for safety reasons. The stop did not result in a ticket. The officer was merely curious about the technology.

However, this particular event does raise several legal questions in anticipation of the future of these autonomous vehicles.

Are Autonomous Vehicles “Street Legal?”

The ability to test drive autonomous vehicles on the roads is state dependent. Currently, the only US states that permit autonomous vehicles through state legislation are California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada, and Washington D.C.

States that have rejected legislation for self-driving cars are Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wisconsin. Several other states are still considering the legalization of self-driving cars. Having a Google car drive itself cross-country would not be legally possible at the moment.  Self-Driving Cars

California is considered one of the most important states for the legislation of self-driving cars, primarily because of the promotion of Tesla’s Autopilot feature and Google’s Self-Driving Car project. Currently, California issues permits for the “testing” of autonomous vehicles so long as the manufacturer can show that the vehicle meets certain unnamed criteria, that the manufacturer publish safety reports, and that the operator of the vehicle holds a valid state driver’s license.

For more specific regulation of the autonomous vehicle testing, the California statute left this to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Car manufacturers must apply for a special permit before they are allowed to test any of their driverless cars on actual California roads. As a means of easing the public into the idea of a driverless vehicle on the streets, the DMV also held public hearings and workshops in January 2015.

Do We Still Need Drivers’ Licenses?

The goal of autonomous cars is to replace the fallible human driver with an infallible self-driving system. Potentially, people who cannot or refuse to obtain a valid state driver’s license would be able to use a self-driving vehicle as their primary mode of transportation.

Currently, of the states that permit the testing of autonomous vehicles, all of them require that the driver/operator has a valid state driver’s license for the class of the vehicle. The assumption is that if the vehicle requires any emergency human intervention, the driver can “take over” the wheel or driving apparatus to prevent an accident. Drivers are also required to interface with law enforcement should the vehicle get pulled over.

But there is speculation as to whether this will be necessary as the technology improves over time. Most accidents involving autonomous vehicles are usually not the fault of the vehicle. The California DMV posted incident reports for nine traffic accidents it has recorded involving a self-driving car. All nine accidents were due to human error.

Another study conducted at the University of Michigan found that autonomous cars had more accidents than human driven cars, but the accidents resulted in less serious injuries. Even with more crashes, autonomous vehicles appear to be safer because they result in less fatalities or other serious injuries. As the technology improves and there is an increase in semi to fully autonomous vehicles, many theorize that this will result in an overall reduction of car accidents.

Potential Changes In Accident Liability

Who then would be at fault if the car is driving? Who would pay for the damages?

Insurance is state-based, with some states using a no-fault system, while others using tort liability. In a no-fault state, each person’s insurance pays for their insured driver’s damages, regardless of who was at fault. In a tort liability or “at-fault” state, the party responsible for the accident is responsible for paying the damages to both parties.

The Insurance Information Institute predicts that with the increase in autonomous vehicles, more states will switch to no-fault. There could be a push for more uniform, federal regulation on autonomous cars instead of relying on the state systems alone. This could ensure that autonomous cars be treated as no-fault regardless of the location of the accident and/or drivers.

Furthermore, there may be a shift from personal liability and car insurance to products and manufacturer liability. If a manufacturing defect caused the accident, then affected parties could seek damages from the manufacturer or anyone else along the manufacturing chain. The result could then lead to a shift from insurance companies who cover individual drivers to insurance companies focused more on products liability coverage for businesses.

Speeding Tickets and Other Police Involvement

Although the Google car has never received a ticket, what would happen if police pulled over an autonomous vehicle for speeding or running a red light? Who would receive the ticket?

Currently, autonomous vehicles can still be controlled by their human operators at any time. Drivers are still required to pay attention in the vehicles even though they are not actively driving. More than likely, since the cars can still relinquish control to their human drivers at any time, the driver still remains responsible for the speeding ticket.

A bigger issue occurs if law enforcement were to obtain control over autonomous vehicles. It would be useful if a police officer could override the car steer it away from danger. However, there are major privacy and individual rights concerns about the boundaries that need to be established for any overriding law enforcement controls. There would be a fine line between a useful override for emergency circumstances and losing control (or even being detained in your vehicle) without providing permission.

These issues have not yet been addressed by the vehicle manufacturers, but federal legislators are already proposing a bill to protect such privacy rights.

New York Representative Grace Meng has recently proposed the Autonomous Vehicle Privacy Protection Act of 2015, which was introduced to the House in early November. It remains to be seen whether this bill will pass into law, but the bill does reflect growing concerns over autonomous vehicles and the possible issues that may arise with their rise.

Even with these potential problems, policymakers and manufacturers are taking slow steps towards the future of autonomous vehicles to ensure that they are both legal and safe. A recent RAND Corporation study found that there is a greater potential of benefits than detriments to this technology. As long as lawmakers and manufacturers continue to work together, we may be fortunate enough to see the first autonomous vehicles for purchase in the future.



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