By Mark Pratzel on June 7, 2016
As driverless car technology evolves, questions continue to arise regarding its legal repercussions. Google, one of the leading forces behind autonomous cars, predicts that they will be available to the public by 2020. Nissan and Tesla are also developing self-driven car technology. And consumers support the new technology. A recent Pew Research Center study indicated that nearly half of Americans would ride in a driverless car.
But new technology spawns new legal issues. For example, what happens when a driverless car gets a speeding ticket or a parking violation? What happens when a driverless car is involved in an accident? Under what circumstances should the owner or manufacturer of the vehicle be held liable? What about the software design, and logic, which may favor avoidance maneuvers claimed to be illegal or improper? And how will the insurance industry respond to these issues?
As regards to criminal violations, even when a car has a human driver, some states have held that making the owner responsible for a violation without evidence that he or she was driving the vehicle, or shifting the burden of proof to the owner, is a denial of due process. How could the owner of an autonomous vehicle be held criminally liable for the acts and omissions of the machine consistent with due process?
In some circumstances, traditional negligence and product liability principles are amenable to civil actions arising from accidents involving autonomously operated vehicles. For example, it requires no stretch of existing law to hold an owner liable for an accident resulting from the owner’s failure to download and install needed software updates or to properly maintain an autonomous vehicle. Similarly, it would be straightforward to hold the manufacturer liable where a design defect, failure to warn, or breach of express or implied warranty under the Uniform Commercial Code causes an accident.
However, driverless car technology is already creating new issues. In San Francisco a Nissan vehicle operating with Nissan’s “Cruise Automation” system collided with a parked vehicle after the Nissan’s occupant attempted unsuccessfully to take over control from the system. Numerous liability possibilities arise from such a scenario, not all of which are directly addressed by existing law.
In December, 2015, the California Department of Motor Vehicles published draft regulations requiring all driverless cars to have steering wheels, brake pedals, and a responsible human onboard with a driver’s license. Not surprisingly, autonomous vehicle manufacturers have been critical of the proposal. Google asserted that California was “writing a ceiling on the potential for fully self-driving cars.” At public workshops following release of the proposed regulations, California’s DMV sought input from manufacturers, research and academic entities, public advocacy groups, and other interested parties. Among those participating were disabled persons and disability advocates, who opposed the proposed regulations requiring licensed autonomous vehicle operators to be behind the wheel. Dealer network representatives had concerns about potential responsibilities for safety issues arising from sales and service. And California’s proposed regulations would outlaw Google’s self-driving vehicle, equipped with no steering wheel or controls other than a black button to make it go, and a red button for emergency stops. By contrast, a spokesperson for the mayor of Austin, Texas has welcomed Google’s design, and said that Austin would be “thrilled” to host driverless car development.
The California DMV acknowledges that driverless cars have great potential benefits, and says that it wants them to be developed and used safely. Given the importance of the California automotive market, the approach it ultimately adopts will likely have a significant impact on the development of driverless vehicle technology and law.
 E.g., Tupper v. City of St. Louis, 468 S.W.3d 360 (Mo. en banc 2015) (Red light camera ordinance creating rebuttable presumption that the owner was driving held unconstitutional); State v. Kuhlman, 729 N.W. 577 (Minn. 2007)(same).