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On Tuesday, September 25, at Google’s Mountain View headquarters, California governor Jerry Brown signed a law legalizing the testing of driverless cars on public roads. While California is not the first state to legalize driverless cars, this step is significant because the state’s large consumer market often drives innovation in the automobile industry.
Auto makers have been developing driverless technology for some time. Nonetheless, Google was the driving force in pushing through this new legislation. Google has already developed a fleet of autonomous vehicles, and its employees having been using them to commute to work. Google’s driverless technology uses radar and laser sensors to react to changing road conditions. So far, Google’s seven-car test fleet has logged 1,000 miles without human intervention, and over 140,000 miles with only sporadic human operation. The only accident Google reported was a rear end collision by another car at a stop light.
Nevada and Florida also permit driverless cars on the road, but impose more
restrictions on their use. For example, Nevada requires special license plates for autonomous vehicles and limits their hours of use. California’s law has its own restrictions, however. Notably, a licensed, human driver must be in the driver’s seat to take control of the vehicle if needed. The bill punts on specific limitations on the technology, requiring the Department of Motor Vehicles to develop regulations by January 1, 2015.
The Department of Transportation is also concerned with the safety of new vehicle technologies. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has recently launched a road test of vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems in Ann Arbor, MI. Over this year-long trial, nearly 3,000 vehicles equipped with technology that allows vehicles to communicate with one another through Wi-Fi technology will demonstrate the software’s ability to avert safety risks in real-time.
Google claims that its driverless vehicle technology, like the vehicle-to-vehicle communication system, will reduce automobile accidents and allow for less congestion on the roads. Additionally, Google co-founder Sergey Brin notes that the driverless car allows drivers to be more productive during their commutes, create avenues of transportation for people with disabilities, and can reduce pollution through lighter-weight vehicles that require fewer safety features. While these benefits are certainly alluring, California’s law currently requires a driver behind the wheel who is alert and ready to take over driving the vehicle if necessary. Therefore, the driverless car is not yet the state’s solution to driving while texting or intoxicated.
Though driverless cars were not explicitly illegal before California’s new law, this measure eliminates some legal uncertainty surrounding use of the new technology. Nonetheless, a good deal of legal uncertainty still remains. For example, automobile insurance will undoubtedly get more complicated as insurers determine whether to hold the driver or the manufacturer liable for accidents involving driverless vehicles. In light of product liability concerns, California’s new law requires autonomous vehicle manufacturers to hold a $ 5 million insurance policy in order to test the cars on public roads.
Another legal concern is over the data the vehicle collects as it operates. It is unclear to whom that data would belong. Courts and legislatures will no doubt have to grapple with these liability and privacy concerns as this driverless technology becomes more widespread.
However the legal issues surrounding this technology are settled, however, California’s embrace of the driverless car signals that this technology is here to stay.