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If Your Car is Driving, Are You Responsible?

California Bill SB 1298 Makes Autonomous Cars Legal In California - Sept 27, 2012, Mountainview CA

Google is already in your pocket on your phone, now they want to be in the driver's seat. Gov. Jerry Brown of California, in a ceremony at Google Headquarters in Mountainview CA, signed into law a set of regulations that make self-driving (autonomous) cars legal in California, subject to the guidelines and restrictions set forth in the Bill. The bill follows similar legislation put into place in Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, Florida and Oklahoma last year. Gov. Brown arrived at the ceremony in one of Google's self-driving Prius automobiles.

"Today we're looking at science fiction becoming tomorrow's reality - the self-driving car," Brown said. "Anyone who gets inside a car and finds out the car is driving will be a little skittish, but they'll get over it. I think the self-driving car can really dramatically improve the quality of life for everyone," Google co-founder Sergey Brin said, citing the record of Google's autonomous fleet of cars that have logged over 300,000 miles of accident free driving, albeit under semi-controlled circumstances.

Over 33,00 automobile related deaths occurred in the United States in 2010, and with the global number estimated to be over 1 million, Google believes self-driving cars can positively impact that number.

SB 1298, sponsored by Sen. Alex Padilla (D), establishes the following parameters for legally operating an autonomous vehicle on CA roads:

  • Safety and performance standards for the safe operation of autonomous vehicles on California's public roads 
    • Allows for the operation of autonomous vehicles on California's public roads by a licensed driver
    • Requires that an autonomous vehicle meet all applicable safety standards and performance requirements in state and federal law
    • Allows the Highway Patrol, in consultation with the Department of Motor Vehicles, to recommend to the Legislature additional requirements for the safe operation of such vehicles on California's roads

Self-Driving Cars - The Technology Works

Google partially behind self driving cars Manufacturers have been working on autonomous vehicle technology for over 20 years, but the first real manifestations of the technology began with the self-parking cars in 2006 , designed to tackle that ever present driver ed nightmare, parallel parking. Ford, BMW and others have led the way with technology using sensors and computers to maneuver their cars into those tight parallel parking spaces. Mercedes has rolled out technology to sense when the driver nods off, changes lanes or doesn't match speed with the traffic. GPS is pervasive in all aspects of our mobile life. These technologies are real and available today, so self-navigating cars are not far off. With today's technology, the mechanics and computers to automate the cars isn't the real hurdle.

Liability will be the crux to you being able to deliver your kids to soccer while reviewing reports or without leaving the couch.

Who is Responsible?

Jerry Brown Governor of CaliforniaCA SB 1298 speifies that to meet regulatory requirements, the vehicle must be operated by a licensed driver and that the driver can take over the controls at any time, returning the car to manual control. Even with this caveat, manufactures feel the bill, and others like it, are moving too fast and failing to address the liability issues that make the technology a commercially viable investment.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers expressed their concern the day Gov. Brown signed the bill.

"Unfortunately this legislation lacks any provision protecting an automaker whose car is converted to an autonomous operation vehicle without the consent or even knowledge of that auto manufacturer," the trade group said in a statement.

So who is responsible? Good Question, with no real answers

  • For instance, if a self-driving car runs a red light and gets caught, who gets the ticket, the owner or the equipment manufacturer?
  • If there is a glitch and an accident (and there always is), who gets sued ?
    • The Software Company
    • The Automobile Manufacturer
    • The owner/operator
  • If you put a 15-year-old in the vehicle and press the go button, are you - the person sitting at home - the driver, or is it the person in the car?
  • Ca. Law has stated that whoever the licensed "operator" of the car is bears the responsibility, even if they aren't in the car, but even that doesn't make everything clear.
    • Try this scenario:
      • When it came to assigning responsibility, California decided that a self-driving car would always have a human operator. Even if that operator wasn't actually in the car, that person would be legally responsible.
      • Let's say the operator of a self-driving car is inebriated; he or she is still legally the operator, but the car is driving itself.
      • Technically, at least, that person could get a citation for driving under the influence while he or she was still sitting on a bar stool.

For now, CA and other states have about two years to work out the wrinkles and specifics before the law takes effect and autonomous cars are free to navigate the freeways.

Trial lawyers, lobbyists, insurers, software makers, auto manufacturers, politicians and hundreds of other concerns are all keen to get the wrinkles ironed out, because they see self-navigating, autonomous cars as a huge economic opportunity. But one thing is very clear, until the issues surrounding liability and who is ultimately responsible when robots take the wheel are clearly defined, automobile manufacturers and their investors are not likely to hand the wheel over R2D2.

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