What if Self-Driving Cars Will Be Ready but the Law Won’t?

There’s a constant concern with self-driving cars. Not many speak it out loud at the moment, but it’s there, deep in their minds: what if an autonomous car causes an accident with fatalities?

Of course, for the moment it’s a concern humanity doesn’t quite feel the need to address. Driverless cars aren’t widely adopted yet. Moreover, there’s a lot of work – and money – being put into safety features and improving them.

But the law seems to have a hard time keeping up with the rhythm at which technology is progressing. Especially since humans have shown an unquenchable thirst for progress.

Almost All Carmakers Have Jumped Aboard the Driverless Hype Train

Even if most drivers want a car they can fully control and enjoy, there are benefits which make self-driving cars appealable. Tesla has already seen success with their vehicles which can be switched to driverless mode.

It may be the reason why the rest of the big carmakers – and not only – have adopted the same trend:

  • Apple,
  • Audi,
  • BMW,
  • Ford,
  • General Motors,
  • Google,
  • Honda,
  • Mercedes,
  • Nissan,
  • Nvidia,
  • Toyota,
  • Volkswagen.

There are hundreds of millions of dollars poured into improving autonomous vehicles.

However, the law still looks at such vehicles as having a human being behind the wheel. Which is true. For now.

We also need to take a good look at our infrastructure and the billions of dollars spent so far. It’s designed for human vision, not computer sensors.

So the law needs to cover both autonomous cars and our roads.

What’s the Legal Situation of Self-Driving Cars in the Present

Without laws to allow it, not even real life testing would be possible.

So, let’s take California for example. The state law allows autonomous vehicles on public roads, but only as long as there is a person behind the wheel – not necessarily controlling the car.

In other states, there are specific roadways where these vehicles are allowed, but under the same condition.

The situation is somehow similar in Europe, with certain states allowing limited testing of self-driving cars. However, the UK has begun reviewing road regulations to figure out how to eventually allow a fully autonomous public transportation.

Japan has approved testing since 2013, but most of their tests are performed in the US.

The Problem

The truth is lack of legal regulations seems to stall progress. No manufacturer would deploy a fleet of autonomous vehicles just to be forced to recall it afterward.

The main concern is an accident would be blamed on a design flaw. Next, would follow multi-billion dollars lawsuits. If the outcome would be the product had a defective condition that was dangerous, it could lead to a complete recall – costing the manufacturer more than you can imagine.

Accident lawsuits where a human is held accountable are simpler: the judicial system has a defendant. Which makes you think: what if?

The Solution

If you think about it, you realize it’s all a sort of misconception. It may seem hard to even ask such a question, but what if from a legal point of view we’d consider human drivers and computers equals on public roads?

Leveling the playing field.

What if the legal system would hold a computer liable only if a human who took the same actions in the same circumstances would be held liable? Instead of using design-defect laws, use basic negligence law.

The sad part is doing so may contradict many of humanity’s views.

On the other hand, it may further boost development and give the manufacturer an incentive to invest more into improving safety.

Wrapping It Up

By setting in place strict legal regulations for self-driving cars on public roads, the rollout would be accelerated. The benefits are powerful:

  • Human drivers are error-prone, while computer drivers tend to be safer
  • A computer won’t fell asleep behind the wheel
  • A computer won’t text while driving
  • Computer drivers can see even through fog, thanks to radars and ultrasonic sensors
  • Computer drivers can better communicate with each other
  • Computer drivers could predict incoming accidents and have faster reaction speeds.

After all, self-driving cars could eventually render the classic vehicle obsolete. That could mean a massive decrease in accidents.

For more information about autonomous vehicles and connected car, keep an eye on my blog.

Philipp Kandal