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6 Questions States Need To Ask About Self-Driving Cars

Publication Date: 
August 13, 2013
Source: 
Governing - Fed Watch
Author: 
Ryan Holeywell

Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society, spoke with Ryan Holeywell of Governing about the questions states will face when automated vehicles become available on the market.

A growing number of states are taking up legislation that addresses self-driving vehicles in an effort to make it easier for researchers to explore the technology.

But most of the legislation deals with how states can facilitate testing -- as opposed to consumer use of the vehicles -- largely because truly automated vehicles aren't yet available on the market. When that day comes, states will face a host of thorny questions. Historically, states have regulated drivers, and the feds have regulated vehicles. But what happens when the vehicle is the driver?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said issues such as licensing, driver training, and how the vehicles will be operated are best handled by the states. "Some states are going to act much faster than the feds can or will," says Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, who has written extensively about the legal implications of automated vehicles.

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The answer to this question probably won't be clear until the technology is further along and officials have an understanding of just how intuitive fully-automated vehicles will or won't be. "If you asked five years ago, should there be special training required for people who use adaptive cruise control... you really could have gone either way on that," says Smith, of Stanford. Today, training of that sort wold seem preposterous.

NHTSA, for its part, recommends states develop a special license or endorsement based on some sort of prerequisite like a test or certification from a manufacturer of autonomous vehicle systems. Smith says states will also have to decide whether people with disabilities that preclude them from driving traditional vehicles would be eligible for an autonomous vehicle instead.

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Smith says that so far, automated vehicles in the testing phase allow the human tester to set the speed. Assuming that continues to be the case with consumer vehicles, violations of the speed limit, from a legal perspective, would clearly fall on the driver's shoulders. "You could make creative arguments that if there's no driver, the law doesn't apply," Smith says. "But that won't fly."

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Indeed, some skeptics have suggested the liability question is the biggest threat to the future of the technology, though Smith disagrees. "I think when the technology is ready and society considers it to be safe, then the law will find a way," he argues.

Human drivers will likely remain legally liable for parking and speeding violations, he says. But "the tragic stuff," like vehicular manslaughter, could be a different story. In that case, "to be guilty legally, a human has to have acted with some level of culpability," Smith says. "If you're sitting in an autonomous vehicle, and you're not behaving recklessly, and the vehicle swerves over and hits somebody, you are not guilty of manslaughter. You didn't even act."

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Smith raises another question. Very soon low-speed, low-mass vehicles -- think glorified golf carts -- will have the ability to operate on a closed-loop to help shuttle people through places like airports and college campuses. Those vehicles might not need any sort of human driver at all, which could further complicate questions about registration.