The California Senate recently passed a bill (SB 1298) allowing the California Highway Patrol to adopt standards for the operation of autonomous vehicles on the road.  To be clear, citizens of the Golden State will not see self-driving cars zipping around the streets en masse any time soon.  The legislation simply opens the door for autonomous vehicles to be tested on California’s roads.  For the vehicles to become commodities they will need to meet safety standards, pass performance requirements, and become more affordable.

Although Google has not disclosed how much a member of its automated fleet costs, the Business Insider ran a piece–”Google’s Self-Driving Cars May Cost More Than a Ferrari“–that highlighed some of the prohibitively expensive components in driverless cars.  As Google explained, “automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to ‘see’ other traffic, as well as detailed maps” to navigate the road.  Packing all that technology into a car will make it an unaffordable luxury to most when the vehicles hit the market.

Only a few states–Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, and Oklahoma–have considered legislation similar to California’s SB 1298.  Just last year, Nevada became the first state to pass a law permitting self-driving cars to be tested on the road.  And now, even though driverless cars are not yet available to the public, the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles accepts applications by manufacturers and developers to license autonomous vehicles.  In fact, Google’s automated vehicles passed a driver’s license test back in May.

As these vehicles progress towards the mainstream, proponents envision “a future where all road vehicles are driven autonomously, there are no collisions, and there is no traffic because a central computer manages vehicles.“  The legal implications for tort liability, insurance law, and surveillance/privacy issues have not gone unnoticed.  For better or worse, changes are already underway.  As states begin crafting laws addressing driverless cars, legislators are laying the foundation for burgeoning issues in automated technology law.

–Katie Kuhn

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3 Responses to Driverless Cars — A Thing of the (Not Too Distant) Future in California

  1. Peter says:

    With regards to Caitlin’s point about these cars being programmed to never break traffic laws…these Google cars are supposed to be able to communicate with one another via the Cloud in order to check each others speeds and reduce congestion, which doesn’t necessarily equate to always sticking to traffic laws…an example would be temporary diversions and roadblocks, how would your car know about them?

    Peter@Space City

  2. Caitlin Angelette says:

    Expanding on Brandon’s point, what if the cars are programmed to never break traffic laws? Would we ever reach a point where people who didn’t drive auto-autos would be negligent for failing to do so and got in an accident? The reasonable care standard for Torts is supposed to reflect changing standards of society. What’s going to happen when we have an objective, mechanical standard for safe driving?

  3. Brandon Trout says:

    It’s exciting to see state legislatures responding positively to advances in technology that seemed like a pipe dream just a few years ago. Like you mentioned, there are still some serious legal issues to be resolved. Although, I’m sure that torts professors would welcome the opportunity to include autonomous cars in their exams. I also wonder about criminal infractions: if I’m riding in my car and it runs a red light, who is responsible? Is the manufacturer going to pick up the tab? Will the “driver” have an affirmative duty to still pay attention to traffic laws and override any potentially dangerous decisions the car may make?