The Legal Road to Driverless Cars

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Just last week, Google had announced their “first real build” of a self-driving vehicle. Driverless cars could save thousands of lives a year in the U.S. alone and also provide significant economic and environmental advantages. But the road to these benefits is full of technological and regulatory curves.

In its announcement, Google has said the vehicle it previously revealed in May was an “early mockup.” This version brings together all the elements of the car in what is the first fully functional form of the vehicle. While Google hopes to have the new cars on the streets of California next year, the California DMV recently acknowledged it will miss a year-end deadline to adopt rules for this new form of transportation due to safety concerns.

In the last several years, 17 states including D.C. have considered legislation authorizing self-driving cars, but only California, Florida, Nevada, and Washington, D.C. have enacted any form of law. While seven other companies are testing driverless cars, Google “is largely the force behind much of this self-driving legalization movement” according to HG.org. In September, the CA DMV issued testing permits for three companies to test 29 vehicles on public roads, with humans behind the wheel in case of computerized error or poor decision making. These permits acted to formalize a process that was already underway, as Google has logged around one million driverless miles of testing in recent years.

DMV officials say the public won’t be permitted to use self-driving cars until it can be certified they don’t pose “an undue risk.” With the technology being so new, part of the problem is that regulations don’t have safety standards to abide by — as of yet there aren’t any federal safety standards or independent safety testing organizations.

The California DMV has three main enforcement paths it could pursue:

It could follow the current U.S. system, in which manufacturers self-certify their vehicles; it could opt for a European system, in which independent companies verify safety; or the state could (implausibly) get into the testing business.

Some of the questions that need to be addressed include determining which traffic laws must be enforced, what happens if and when computers freeze up or are hijacked, and how to manage alternating control between the car and the human driver. There’s also the question of whether a person needs to be in the vehicle at all, let alone a licensed driver. Despite these concerns, there is a general consensus that driverless cars should be safer than human-driven vehicles.

California is a leader in transportation and vehicle regulation. Their policies are often adopted at the national level, as has been the case with many fuel standards. In this instance the state is trying to get out ahead of a potentially revolutionary shift in transportation methods, as opposed to playing catch-up as many regions are now doing with rideshare services like Uber.

There may also be some climate and environmental benefits of driverless cars should they come to rule the road. Self-driving cars are highly efficient, could be powered by alternative forms of energy, and are deferential to pedestrians and people on bikes, which could help boost those forms of transportation. However, driverless cars could also make urban sprawl more appealing as cheaper, more convenient rides could encourage lower-density living and even hinder or reverse investment in public  transportation infrastructure. Nonetheless, a recent study by the Rocky Mountain Institute found that when self-driving vehicles are combined with car sharing methods and new vehicle materials, overall CO2 emissions could drop “by up to 95 percent, even when considering the CO2 emitted from the electricity generation.”

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