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Driverless tech: First comes carriage ... then the law

Publication Date: 
June 22, 2014
Crain's Detroit Business
Gary Anglebrandt

Center for Internet and Society Fellow Bryant Walker Smith weighs in on the legal complications associated with driverless cars fors Crain's Detroit Business. 

When it comes to law, words matter, and their definitions matter even more.

The big problem with legal definitions surrounding driverless vehicle technology: There are none.

Although a few states, Michigan included, have begun to acknowledge driverless systems in their law books, the subject mainly remains a legal gray area. Michigan's laws, passed in December, only provide for testing of autonomous vehicles, and no state's motor vehicle regulator (like Michigan's Secretary of State) has begun addressing driverless technology in its rules.


As a practical matter, the law books' saying nothing will only go so far. Otherwise, awkward legal questions arise — unintended consequences of laws made without a thought toward cars without people in them.

"And those questions might be addressed first by legislatures, and if not, then they will be addressed by the courts," setting the stage for a mess of rules and precedents, said Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University and a professor of law at the University of South Carolina.