POSTED BY Abner Pinedo

Imagine a scenario where a blind man is operating a vehicle by himself on a freeway and is able to arrive safely to his destination. This far-fetched scenario only once imagined in Sci-Fi films is one of many possibilities that Google Inc. illustrates as possible in a YouTube video they posted up called “Self-Driving Car Test: Steve Maha.” Between 2011 and 2012, California, Nevada, and Florida have passed laws allowing the use of automated vehicles on the road in their prototype stages. Google claims that their automated self-driven vehicle is going to revolutionize safety and efficiency for society. The Google Car boasts over 300,000 driven miles in real-time traffic without any reported accidents to date. They claim their autonomous vehicle has the potential of bringing our average 32,000 motor vehicle accidents a year to zero. This is the future Google’s working on for us.

The legality of these new vehicles on the road seems possible, but what exactly is allowed? Three bodies of law govern the United States’ vehicle laws: the 1941 Geneva Convention, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the vehicle codes that each State has enacted. These laws combined create a complex body of law, some requiring that there should be a driver in control of the vehicle at all times. These laws do not particularly prohibit the legality of automated vehicles, but does complicate their admissibility. For example, most states assume the notion of a prudent or reasonable licensed human driver with the ability to use their own sound judgment.

California, Nevada, and Florida have all allowed Google’s automated prototype to be legal on the roads. These states have passed similar bills all defining “autonomous vehicles” and the ability to obtain virtual or automated licenses. The policy behind these bills is to facilitate the creation and use of these new technologies safely on the highways. However, these passed bills do not address general tort liability, insurance, environmental impact assessment, and more.

If autonomous vehicles are to become legal they are going to change the structure of a lot of our industries, especially of those of insurance companies. It is going to affect who gets sued and who is liable of an accident. For example, who would be held responsible for a fender-bender when a computer is automatically controlling the vehicle? Would the blind man be held liable or would Google be? Since the bills don’t resolve the human drivers’ obligations behind the wheel and the vehicle standards, it is likely that the Google car will remain a prototype for sometime. The question regarding who’s liable and how much in damages will be paid is left to the courts and legislation to decide. These decisions need to be well balanced in order to not deter companies from entering into this new sector and it cannot make the drivers fully responsible for a machine’s decisions in order to not dissuade drivers from purchasing the vehicles.

The question of liability would further be complicated by the different definitions of “autonomous” established between the legislature and the DMV in these states. For example, the Nevada’s legislature definition of autonomous vehicle does not require a human operator. However, the Nevada DMV’s definition of autonomous does require some form of human intervention. The potential driver could in fact argue that they should not be held liable, because the legislature does not conceivably require human input, thus the creator of the vehicle would be deemed at fault. These inconsistencies need to be thoroughly fixed and altered. Nevada legislature did urge for the DMV to amend their definition of autonomous in order to comply with their definition of autonomous. Without a clear definition and consistency, liability for an accident related to autonomous vehicles can become a mess. It is clearly an exciting time we live in. Nevertheless, self-driven vehicles have a long way towards fully being able to exit its prototypic stages and into our garages.

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