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When Autonomous Vehicles Hit the Courthouse

Whom do you sue when a computer is driving the car?

By Douglas Newcomb Feb 8, 2012 8:29AM
Google autonomous-driving Toyota Prius. Photo by Jurvetson/Flikr.When Google's fleet of self-driving Toyota Prii surreptitiously logged more than 140,000 miles of shakedown cruising a couple of years ago -- with the only accident involving a stupid human driver -- it felt as if science fiction had become fact. General Motors predicts we'll see semiautonomous vehicles on the road by the middle of the decade and fully self-driving cars by 2020. And Mercedes-Benz provided a peek into autonomous driving with its Dynamic and Intuitive Control Experience (DICE) exhibit at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show.

The benefits of autonomous driving are clear: fewer accidents and traffic tie-ups, more mobility options for an aging population and potentially more productive time behind the wheel for everyone. Much more murky are the numerous legal issues surrounding cars that drive themselves.

In Nevada, Google didn't wait for a legislature to react and rule on the legality autonomous vehicles. The company lobbied for -- and helped to pass -- Nevada Assembly Bill 551, which requires the Department of Motor Vehicles "to adopt regulations authorizing the operation of autonomous vehicles on highways within the state." The bill defines an autonomous vehicle as one that uses "artificial intelligence, sensors and Global Positioning System coordinates to drive itself without the active intervention of a human operator." 
 
Of course, Nevada is more permissive than most states. So autonomous vehicles may not soon have free range, say, in next-door neighbor California. But, as is usually the case, it's a matter of the law catching up with a new technology. "The law in California is silent; it doesn't address it," Google's business lead on its autonomous-vehicle program, Anthony Levandowski, told Wired's Autopia. "The key is staying within the law. There's always a person behind the wheel ... ready to take over if anything goes wrong," he added.

Ryan Calo, who studies legal issues surrounding robotics for Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society, told Autopia, "Generally speaking, something is lawful unless it is unlawful." That's why the Nevada law is a litmus test for autonomous-vehicle legislation, as well as a possible precedent for existing active safety technologies such as Volvo's Pedestrian Detection and Toyota's Lane Keep Assist that take control of a car in certain situations to prevent accidents. "[The Nevada law] sets a definition of autonomous technology that is based in part on the statutory definition of autonomous vehicle ... and then it very explicitly excludes all of the individual technologies that are commercially available today," Calo added.

That vagueness is what the legal community is left to sort out. And it's already on it. I spoke with F. Daniel Siciliano, an associate dean at Stanford Law School, after he gave a lecture at an event to kick off the university's new REVS program last April. Siciliano spoke at length on the complex legal issues surrounding autonomous vehicles. (Some of the most advanced, coincidentally, were built by his Stanford colleagues at the school's Center for Automotive Research, which has a symbiotic relationship with Google.)

Who is at fault when an autonomous vehicle crashes: the driver, the automaker or the technology provider? Would someone who is drunk be able to legally get behind the wheel of an autonomous vehicle? Would a parent be able to send underage passengers off to school in an autonomous vehicle? Siciliano told me that these are not rhetorical questions but something the legal community has been looking into for a few years now.
Put this against the backdrop of the litigious population of the U.S. and it's enough to cause automakers and their legal counsel to run the other way. (The Autopia post points out that, "Liability is a particularly American issue; one study noted that in 1992, Ford was hit with more than 1,000 product liability suits in the United States and exactly one in Europe.") Yet automakers in the U.S. and Europe have talked about big plans for an autonomous driving future.

A study by Rand Corp. was also optimistic that, as with other initially controversial car technologies -- we're looking at you, airbags -- the legal issues surrounding autonomous vehicles will be worked out, and the safety and financial benefits will outweigh the liability concerns. "The decrease in the number of crashes and the associated lower insurance costs that these technologies are expected to bring about will encourage drivers and automobile insurance companies to adopt this technology," the study stated.

Then automakers will only have to win over hard-core driving enthusiasts who vow to never let a car take full control.
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