Self-Driving Cars and the Law: Sorting Out the Rules

The auto industry has been abuzz over the advent of self-driving cars for a while now. Google has been testing out their models, and other major manufacturers such as Tesla, Ford, and Volvo have also been developing their own renditions. There’s no question that the technology is impressive, but while many people are excited about the possibilities of automated driving, others are skeptical. One of the main concerns is what rules will apply to the vehicles. At present, there’s a great deal of confusion about how these vehicles will be tested and used safely and within legal parameters. Here are some of the major concerns facing the burgeoning industry:

self-driving car with driver inside it

Different Laws in Different Places

Many states have no laws as yet that specifically apply to self-driving cars and in those that do, they vary widely. In Florida, the law states that it “does not prohibit or specifically regulate the testing or operation of autonomous technology,” which is a pretty long-winded way of saying that they haven’t come up with any rules yet. California has a limit to self-driving cars exceeding 60 miles an hour, but allows them on the streets.

Manufacturers have complained of the inconsistency and that it bars their progress with the technology; in response, the U.S. government has proposed a $4 billion, ten year program to streamline the laws and get automated cars onto the road. These new laws are set to be researched, fine-tuned, and presented in about six months.

Complete Automation or Partial?

So who is in charge of the car, really? At present, automated cars still offer the option for the person in the driver’s seat to take over. In fact, California presently requires that the person behind the wheel be sitting up, be paying attention and be licensed to drive in case they need to take the wheel. Some argue that this negates the point of these vehicles, however, since they could feasibly allow people without driving experience to get around. This issue would need to be decided before any real advances could be made.

Who’s at Fault?

And speaking of drivers, who is at fault when a self-driven car crashes? Is it the manufacturer? The driver? Currently, most companies are accepting the responsibility for any damage that might occur while working out the kinks in the new technology – and they haven’t seen any real incidents. If the cars are completely automated, it seems likely that the manufacturer would be liable, though to what extent is also up for debate. They might merely be responsible for damages, but they might also be sued for design defects and have to recall and overhaul their whole system.

There are also some potential concerns that these new cars might be more prone to hacks that could cause accidents. If someone apart from the manufacturer and driver were to steer the car into another vehicle, who pays for the hospital stays and car repairs?

These are some of the rules that have to be settled and consistent policies drawn up before Americans will see a meaningful uptick in the number of self-driving cars. How that affects other aspects of ownership like vehicle registration and insurance has yet to be seen.

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