Regulations surrounding autonomous vehicles are a mess right now. It seems like every city in the country are asking themselves how they will address an autonomous car on their roadways. Meanwhile, state and federal agencies are doing the exact same thing.
The problem that autonomous vehicles present is a new one that has never been tested in most of the courtrooms around the nation. Problems like what standards do these vehicles have to meet in order to be considered safe enough to drive alongside cars driven by humans? Who is responsible if one of these vehicles break traffic rules? What rights does the owner of an autonomous vehicle have if they are not present at the time their vehicle is involved in a collision?
These are just a few of the questions being debated across the country. While many local agencies see a benefit in imposing strict standards in order to protect the safety of their citizens, many automakers want a national agency to provide consistent rules that apply throughout the country so their vehicles can be purchased and driven freely.
The California regulatory debate
In California, this rush to regulate has created a confusing situation. Auto makers are claiming that by imposing its own regional requirements on vehicles that drive on its highways, riders that purchased their cars from outside the state may find themselves in legal hot water if their vehicle does not meet their strict local standards.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), for example, is in charge of regulating public transportation in the city of San Francisco. In a recent letter from the SFMTA, a proposed rule would allow local law enforcement to access the logs of any autonomous vehicle that has been involved in a collision without a warrant.
That information would need to be made available immediately, which means the automaker would have to provide a system for doing so in order for its vehicle to be approved for sale and/or use in that city. Meanwhile, another state could impose entirely different regulations that require an entirely different system to be put in place.
Benefits of nation-wide rules
Some automakers are arguing that regulations on autonomous vehicles should remain solely in the hands of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Doing so would ensure that regulations are consistent from city to city and state to state.
So, if someone bought a car legally in Texas and wanted to drive to California, they could be unknowingly in violation of local laws if their legally-purchased car does not meet California’s requirements.
Further, some of the regulations being debated are causing automakers to scratch their heads. Tesla, in its statement to the California DMV, cited that a proposed requirement that no vehicle used for testing be allowed to be later sold ignores the fact that a software update makes the testing vehicle indistinguishable from a production vehicle as the only differences are in the software.
Further, it argued that the weight of an autonomous vehicle should not be a consideration in whether or not it should be approved for use as the software and hardware that runs it is the same. An autonomous 18-wheeler and an autonomous coup should be regulated the same. Further, a blanket ban on larger (heavy) autonomous vehicles would stifle innovation and commerce.
Imagine that, a few years from now, you’re standing at a busy intersection waiting for your autonomous car to arrive from its nearby parking space. It turns the corner, navigating flawlessly through the hustle and bustle of downtown traffic, and stops right in front of you. Upon entering your vehicle, you notice a parking ticket tucked under the windshield wiper.
You didn’t park the car. The car parked itself. You know you didn’t break any laws, but apparently your car did. Are you liable for the fine? What about the manufacturer? The automation software developer? Does your insurance company get to increase your individual premiums even though you weren’t even in the car when it broke the law?
These are some of the legal situations we are beginning to face as autonomous cars make their way out of the pages of science fiction and into our very real modern-day world. Regulators and government entities across local, state, and federal jurisdictions are scrambling to sort out these legal situations that are undoubtedly about to make their ways into the courtroom.
The big question right now is, are we going to be in a situation where every city has its own set of standards specifically imposed on autonomous vehicles, or are these municipalities going to trust in a unified national set of guidelines?