Who’s Behind the Wheel? California Legalizes Autonomous Vehicles

Friday, September 28, 2012, by Ashley McAlarney

Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill, SB 1298, into law this Tuesday that allows the operation of “driverless cars” in the California for testing purposes. The state Department of Motor Vehicles is now required to develop safety regulations for the cars by 2015, which will include the stipulation that a licensed driver must be behind the wheel to take control if a problem occurs.

California joins Nevada and Florida in the movement to legalize autonomous vehicle testing, which is fueled (in technological, monetary and lobbying terms) largely by technology giant Google. The company has been test-driving their driverless cars in California since 2009, so the new law clarifies that this driving is legal to expand research. As the leading company in the field of autonomous automobiles, Google has logged over 300,000 miles with test cars with 50,000 miles uninterrupted by human drivers. The program’s goal is to improve driver safety and efficiency as well as to reduce carbon emissions. Behind these computer-driven cars is an operating system comprised of cameras and sensors that help control the vehicle and the policy argument that most fatal traffic accidents are due to human error. The impact of this safety concern in the general automotive industry is already visible. Many human-driven vehicles already have autonomous features, like automatic braking and parking/back-up sensors.

Other states are considering similar legislation as the idea of autonomous vehicles spreads, but this new technology has also sparked legal concerns. The Consumer Watchdog group has expressed worries over privacy issues, suggesting that Google will use its autonomous cars to collect information about drivers’ destinations and use it for marketing with no legal protections for the users. Citing the tech company’s influence on swift actions to pass the law without considering its effects, the director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project says that “the governor and many legislators have been taken for a ride by Google.”

Another legal concern is over fault in the event that an autonomous car is involved in an accident due to some kind of malfunction. The question of who will be legally responsible involves many different players and scenarios. For instance, is it the driver’s for not taking control? Or the car manufacturer or technology company for mechanical or computer problems? Or even the state for not maintaining the roads to work properly with the autonomous technology? It will be interesting to see these novel legal issues play out as states decide whether to legalize driverless vehicles and as these cars hit the roads for testing over the next few years. 

So while “robot cars” won’t be rolling on the highways in large numbers anytime in the immediate future, they will certainly remain in the political, legal, and public dialogue as this technology develops.