Are We Ready for Autonomous Vehicles?

June 8, 2015

This month marks a milestone for the world of autonomous vehicles. Virginia announced June 1 that the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, in partnership with the Virginia DOT and several other entities, has established the “Virginia Automated Corridors.” The corridors comprise over seventy miles of roads in Northern Virginia, including several interstates and state roads. According to the announcement, the “Virginia Automated Corridors integrate a range of resources” that include access to HOV toll lanes, high-definition mapping capabilities, real-time traffic information, pavement markings suitable for automated vehicles, short-range communications for vehicle-to-vehicle communications, and more.
Further, “in light of heightened concerns about their safety,” last week Google announced it will begin reporting accidents involving its driverless vehicles. Google reported that over the six years of their automated vehicle project, their fleet of 32 vehicles has driven over 1.8 million miles, with about 1 million of those miles in “autonomous mode.” Over those 1.8 million miles, Google autonomous vehicles have been involved in 12 collisions (7 while in autonomous mode and 5 while in manual mode), and Google reports none of those collisions placed the automated vehicle at fault.
While all of this is a great step forward in determining the effectiveness of automated and driverless vehicles, this type of integration of autonomous vehicles into our current roadways creates a host of legal questions. For example, if two automated vehicles collide, where does the liability fall? Does it fall with the driver who owns the at-fault autonomous car as with conventional cars? Or does it fall with the true operator of the car, the software (and by extension, the manufacturer or software developer)?
A natural extension of determining liability relates to the insurance industry. How will these changes to the way we drive affect the insurance industry? As recently as February 2015, the Insurance Information Institute (III) detailed the recent developments in “Self-Driving Cars and Insurance.” This report raises questions surrounding unresolved issues that will affect the insurance industry. Currently, the insurance industry is state-regulated, with some states following a “no fault” system, in which an insurer pays for the insured party’s damages regardless of who is at fault, and other states following a system based on tort law. The III sees the possibility of a shift in the insurance industry as automated cars come on the scene. The III sees the possibility of manufacturers, in exchange for accepting a greater responsibility for automobile accidents, calling for a more uniform insurance system in which the federal government plays a larger role.
Other groups that will be affected include law enforcement and first responders. Currently law enforcement employs countless officers to patrol our highways and ensure drivers are following the laws of the road. However, autonomous cars have the potential to eliminate speeding drivers and drunk drivers and greatly reduce the rate of collisions. Given that possibility, over time law enforcement will have to adjust to the diminishing need for officers who patrol our highways. Another unanswered question relates to first responders: how will autonomous cars respond to first responders? (And for that matter, will ambulances currently driven by first responders become autonomously driven as well?) With the rise of vehicle-to-vehicles communications (a capability already in place that is separate from autonomous vehicles), it seems possible that autonomous cars will be able to respond to emergency vehicles more easily and efficiently than humans as the autonomous car will not be distracted by things such as cell phones, music, passengers, billboards, etc.

One thing is certain: we are seeing a paradigm shift in the world of transportation, and as with every paradigm shift there are countless unanswered questions.

The rise of autonomous cars give rise to a host of legal questions that will likely be answered more fully in the coming years.