Will Self-Driving Cars Change the Rules of the Road?

Google claims computer-navigated cars are safer than human-driven ones, but they pose a flood of new legal questions

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Karen Bleier / AFP / Getty Images

A Google self-driving car maneuvers through the streets of Washington, D.C., on May 14, 2012

Not long ago, self-driving cars seemed like science fiction. But Google is now operating so-called autonomous cars in California and Nevada, and last week at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Toyota and Audi unveiled prototypes for self-driving cars to sell to ordinary car buyers. (Google co-founder Sergey Brin said last year he expects his company to have them ready for the general public within five years.) In a report backing self-driving cars, the consulting firm KPMG and the Center for Automotive Research recently predicted that driving is “on the brink of a new technological revolution.”

(MORE: Self-Driving Cars Available by 2019, Report Says)

But as the momentum for self-driving cars grows, one question is getting little attention: Should they even be legal? And if they are, how will the laws of driving have to adapt? All our rules about driving — from who pays for a speeding ticket to who is liable for a crash — are based on having a human behind the wheel. That is going to have to change.

There are some compelling reasons to support self-driving cars. Regular cars are inefficient: the average commuter spends 250 hours a year behind the wheel. They are dangerous. Car crashes are a leading cause of death for Americans ages 4 to 34 and cost some $300 billion a year. Google and other supporters believe that self-driving cars can make driving more efficient and safer by eliminating distracted driving and other human error. Google’s self-driving cars have cameras on the top to look around them and computers to do the driving. Their safety record is impressive so far. In the first 300,000 miles, Google reported that its cars had not had a single accident. Last August, one got into a minor fender bender, but Google said it occurred while someone was manually driving it.

After heavy lobbying and campaign contributions, Google persuaded California and Nevada to enact laws legalizing self-driving cars. The California law breezed through the state legislature — it passed 37-0 in the senate and 74-2 in the assembly — and other states could soon follow. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents big carmakers like GM and Toyota, opposed the California law, fearing it would make it too easy for carmakers and individuals to modify cars to self-drive without the careful protections built in by Google.

(MORE: Speeding into the Future: Self-Driving Cars Are Now Legal in California)

That is a reasonable concern. If we are going to have self-driving cars, the technical specifications should be quite precise. Just because your neighbor Jeb is able to jerry-rig his car to drive itself using an old PC and some fishing tackle, that does not mean he should be allowed to.

As self-driving cars become more common, there will be a flood of new legal questions. If a self-driving car gets into an accident, the human who is “co-piloting” may not be fully at fault — he may even be an injured party. Whom should someone hit by a self-driving car be able to sue? The human in the self-driving car or the car’s manufacturer? New laws will have to be written to sort all this out.

(MORE: The Government Would Like to Keep Reading Your E-Mail)

How involved — and how careful — are we going to expect the human co-pilot to be? As a Stanford Law School report asks, “Must the ‘drivers’ remain vigilant, their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road? If not, what are they allowed to do inside or outside, the vehicle?” Can the human in the car drink? Text-message? Read a book? Not surprisingly, the insurance industry is particularly concerned and would like things to move slowly. Insurance companies say all the rules of car insurance may need to be rewritten, with less of the liability put on those operating cars and more on those who manufacture them.

At the signing ceremony for California’s self-driving-car law, Governor Jerry Brown was asked who is responsible when a self-driving car runs a red light. He answered: “I don’t know — whoever owns the car, I would think. But we will work that out. That will be the easiest thing to work out.” Google’s Brin joked, “Self-driving cars don’t run red lights.”

Neither answer is sufficient. Self-driving cars should be legal — and they are likely to start showing up faster and in greater numbers than people expect. But if that is the case, we need to start thinking about the legal questions now. Given the high stakes involved in putting self-guided, self-propelled, high-speed vehicles on the road, “we will work that out” is not good enough.

111 comments
jdiamond873
jdiamond873

why are these cars not legal and out to consumers they have had over ten years testing them I mean that should be plenty of time it seems to me like one big joke and another thing everything seems to be around that big 2020 woooo do yous people not relies that there is people being killed on the roads I don't think yous do cause its all about that big 2020 wonder how many lives will be lost until this self driving car does comes out.

VegetarianProtein
VegetarianProtein

The other advantage of this technology is youngsters would be able to drive at a much earlier age. This means they may gain their independence from the age of 6 or 8, rather than the age of 15 or 17.

 Only consideration is I would think parental control as to the locations a driver less car owned by a child would need to be restricted.

 For example my child uses his/her driver-less car to get to school, work and the gym and its friends house once per week. The computer 

settings would not allow him/her to set-out after 8pm unless going home and the car would only have a number of set routes it can be programmed to follow.  

JodyMacDonald
JodyMacDonald

I think moral question will quickly become "Should it be legal for Humans to drive on public roads?" and the insurance companies will answer "No". Death and injury rates will plummet when humans no longer guide these 3000 pound missiles. 

sushanthpro
sushanthpro

But what if the technology is misused i.e. some x person might deviate the car route and the car can crash into the people or something else who is responsible...........

DaveNguyen
DaveNguyen

Our airplanes are already self-piloted for the most part, I don't see why we shouldn't have our cars be self-driven. 

buckeyekidd
buckeyekidd

Can you really imagine a time when cars will be able to make decisions about a big leaf, a small dog, a turtle etc.?
Until then, the full attention of the driver will be required.
Even if, that's IF, all cars are on the system and they can't run into each other, would it be tolerable for a car to slam on it's breaks for everything we normally run over?

maxonepercent
maxonepercent

I am sure the technology will advance much faster than the law.  Personally, I have a hard time imagining insurance companies accepting the spread of these vehicles until liability is clearly established in the courts.  Even if they are significantly less likely to have accidents than human-operated vehicles, they are still going to have accidents and when they do the question of responsibility becomes quite complex.  For example, presumably some of these vehicles will be unmanned delivery type vehicles.  Who is responsible when one is involved in an accident?  There is no "driver" per se, is it the company that owns the vehicle or the manufacturer at fault?

Also, I can't help but think that these automated cars are almost tailor made for criminal operations.  I think these vehicles would be huge targets for hackers just because of the criminal potential.  Take drug smuggling for example, an automated vehicle would make the perfect driver if it were reprogrammed in the right way.

buckeyekidd
buckeyekidd

So I'm driving, eh, my car is driving down the road and a big leaf flies across the road in front of my car.

My car decides to slam on the brakes. My coffee pours into my dashboard electronics. WONDERFUL.

Or will I be able to program my car to:

run over flying leaves, big but not too big sticks, rats (uh, yeah, OK, rats), 

squirrels (uh, no, not squirrels)?

NOT! 

C'mon gaget heads! Get a clue. Technology can't and shouldn't do everything.


Ocsicnarf
Ocsicnarf

I like to drive, but of course selfdriving cars will be useful to those who don't or when you're ill, exhausted or drunk. It's amazing that we can talk abiut this as somethingthat is going to happen in the near future. I remember reading about Sally, the positronic car that Asimov imagined. Great!


Raggedhand
Raggedhand

I can't wait! 

Self-driving cars and Zipcar are a match made in heaven.  Can you imagine getting up in the morning, going to your phone and ordering a Zipcar, which drives itself to your house (on time!), picks you up and takes you to work, where after it drops you off, goes off to the next customer?  At the end of the day the car is back at your work, ready to take you home.  What a boon for the elderly, handicapped and those who are unable to drive!

MattMathias
MattMathias

I find it very funny that the artical worries only about who will get sued in an accident...heaven forbid this no one

JackRabbit
JackRabbit

Quote: Last August, one got into a minor fender bender, but Google said it occurred while someone was manually driving it. UnQuote:

I know I'm splitting hairs here, but when I read an article in the New York Times titled "Google Cars Drive Themselves, in Traffic"

The article stated: "The only accident, engineers said, was when one Google car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light." If that statement is true, the accident was by a conventional human driven car.

More importantly though, when these types of cars completely take over (as I believe they will) ,stop lights, traffic signs, driver's permits - the whole mishpookta will no longer be required. We will at that point be on a complex conveyer belt. Go ahead, drink as much as you want!

I can see a dark side though, yes there will be no high speed car chases, which is a good thing. But I can just see the police having the ability, if they so wished, to press a few buttons, your car doors will lock, and it will then drive you safely to the police station of their choice. -- a little spooky.

And more interestingly, I feel that the dream of the flying car will be ushered in post haste. What is a flying car but a very small plane or helicopter that can drive along a road if it so wished. They could of been introduced ages ago, but they weren't because of the accident problem. Can you imagine it? It is a busy day in future land and Joe Sixpack stagers into to his flying car to get another round, hits another flying car carrying a family of six going to church, the pieces of car and people will cascade down hitting other flying cars until the people on the ground get the final blow. It just can't be allowed. Well, the self driving car or self guiding flying car will change the whole paradigm of transportation.


unmews
unmews

can i beta test one?

False_Believer
False_Believer

A few years back we would have worried about terrorists using self-driving vehicles as explosives-delivery devices. Is fear out of style or is it eclipsed by the profit motive?

boorish1
boorish1

"We will work that out" isn't good enough?  That's ridiculous.  That means they know they need an answer and they're going to figure it out, which is exactly good enough, exactly what setting up laws is.   

tdctucky
tdctucky

I have been in the Automotive trades as a catalog info guy for better than 40 years, Thankfully I am old enuf that these things will not be forced upon me. I want nothing to do with them. For those idiots on the road who don't really know how to drive, they can be a help, but for those of us who really learned how to drive, defensively and cordially this is an affront !


tommy.vio
tommy.vio

Why not just make semi-self-driving vehicles?  Let a human drive just as we do now, but have automatic break systems and automatic steering in emergency cases.

Let's say you drive the car and suddenly something jumps out in front of you, the automatic steering would respond a lot quicker and a lot more accurately as to where and how fast to turn to avoid hitting something/someone.  Same with breaks...  


Actually there are already cars that have some of this technology.

EllisGodard
EllisGodard

Brin wasn't joking. Google's cars *don't* run red lights - or commit any of the other infractions you mention. Google's design arguably avoids all of the issues you raise.

But the one new (at least to me) issue you do raise, is enormous: If the law permits Google cars, it has to permit Big Ed's Correspondence Course car kits. But any set of specifiable standards will become child's play in short time, given Moore's law - and what distinguishes Goliath from every wannabe David isn't a list of numbers, but an irreplicable environment of knowledge and services.

You can quantify anything, even variable quality, which is what insurance does, and there's the rub: Getting insured for DIY uberauto-mobiles is (one should hope) going to be prohibitive, while insurance to let Google drive will (like the car) be ad-sponsored.

tagrhm
tagrhm

I work in IT, and have seen even the most well thought out program have a flaw that has caused it to crash, break, abend whatever you'd like to call it.   It may be safer in some ways but no one can say they are truly safe.   All it takes is a flaw in the system, or someone finding a way to hack into the system, heck a solar flare haha, you never know and the nice little car that takes you to work will be suddenly taking you for a wild ride.

deterministic.trades
deterministic.trades

not sure about driving rules .. but I guarantee  you .. self driving  cars will save the lives of thousands of teenagers every year .. however they will increase the number of unwanted teenager pregnancies conceived while driving ... 

Life is fun ... 

Disco_House
Disco_House

God bless America for creating the conditions that have allowed companies like Google to flourish and innovate and go against the world trend and actually produce something this great and this useful.  Thank you Google.

RickFromTexas
RickFromTexas

Yes, the rules wil change, we'll all sue our cars when they careen off the road into a ditch.

MichaelCubstead
MichaelCubstead

Really no one ever asks the most obvious....What about commercial trucks...What industry go gain the most, cutting out the cost of the driver, 24 hr a day operation... Self Drive Semi's  that the real economic and safety question.

AlyCat
AlyCat

NO NO NO!!! Are you freakin kidding me?! FIRST of all, look at the frequency of major storms. Become more reliant on systems that could totally crash? THESE PEOPLE need to develop a better fuel source at best. The internal combustion engine is the only way to go. Imagine a thing like the JAPAN tsunami... what if all our machines run on electricity and peripheral systems. How are we supposed to rebuild and move around and be self sufficient if A COMPANY like McServer is destroyed or compromised for whatever unforeseen reason. Look how long it took people to get power in Jersey/NYC. ANOTHER THING>>> these kids today need to learn more about tactile practices and tool knowledge. I spent a lot of time in the garage playing with bikes and skateboards, hammers and screws and saws and wrenches, and moved on to cars and motorcycles and other things. It's a valuable thing to keep the inherited building blocks of human achievement in your societies' repertoire. 

deathbeard
deathbeard

This artilce is much ado about nothing.  Self driving  cars will come soon, and they will be a vast improvement over human driven cars.  I think the author was fishing around for something to write about and came up with this non-story.

peacemanjack
peacemanjack

sounds like a bad idea to me. this could just be the first step, whats next? computers capable of doing jobs that humans constantly fall to error in? i don't see why everyone wants computers to be a part of our lives every minute of every day. people don't want to think for themselves anymore and would rather have someone or something (computer) take the fall for their actions. the US disgusts me more and more each day and i cant wait to get a college degree and get out of here. people should live simply and stop destroying the earth, its a beautiful place that we as a whole are taking for granted, generations to come should have the same opportunities as us. i know this isn't just about the self-driven cars but change must come if you want generations to come to have the same opportunities to experience nature as we do now.

PaulMiller
PaulMiller

I am all for it as long as the penalties are prohibitively high for the companies when their system makes a mistake and someone dies. It will happen at some point, even if it is safer than people driving, I am sure it is, but without a person responsible these companies must be held to a high standard since it will be they are liable. I am thinking about automatically $1 billion for each person whose life is lost, corporate profits cannot be balanced against a human life.

NunuvYurbiz
NunuvYurbiz

Will it change the rules? Yes, cities will have to find new sources of income to replace the lost revenue from handing out tickets (valid or bogus). 

andypandya10
andypandya10

Think about all the jobs that will be lost due to this technology. Truck, bus and taxi drivers will all be out of work. I am not against the sell driving vehicle technology but as a society we need to sort out not only legal issues but also human impact issues related to this technology. 

pendragon05
pendragon05

So long as they don't be taking left turns on red lights like they do here in Florida.

SmoothEdward1
SmoothEdward1

They’ll have to make a special model for the New York area that flips another driver a self-driven middle-finger.

albertson.chris
albertson.chris

A self driving car has the potential to SERIOUSLY change the look of a city and out lifestyle.   When you think about a truly automatic driver then you don't need a windshield.  The front and rear seats can face together with a fold down table between them.  You can eat breakfast at the table and read the paper while on your way to work.

Then the car drops you right at the door and then goes off, maybe a mile or two to the car park and recharges itself.   Later after work you walk a few blocks to the bar and have drinks the car comes to the bar and picks you up, you take a nap as it drives you home.

The city will LOOK different because parking lots need not be close to the building entrance.  We will have much more attractive landscape designs with very large loading/unloading zones.

The thing that changes everything is to remember that an automatic car can drive when it is empty.  It can pick up kids from school.  and multiple owners can SHARE one automatic car.  For example the car can take me to work then go home and take my wife where she needs to be.   I think we will see mmany empty cars on the road.

Car sharing will make more sense.  Why should MY car travel 20 miles to pick up my wife if there is a same model auto-car that is parked and un-used only a few blocks away, that car can pick her up.   

Lke I sad this pretty much changes lifestyles and the look of the city.