Driverless cars, like those envisioned in The Jetsons, could become a reality in our lifetimes. Autonomous cars are those capable of driving and navigating entirely without direct human input. They currently exist only as prototypes, but a number of companies are betting that they will be sold commercial in the near future. Google’s driverless cars have already traveled over 300,000 of miles without an incident or accident. Though lawyers may dream of a driverless car chauffeuring them to work while they wrack up billable hours, driverless cars also bring up a host of fascinating legal issues that need to be addressed in the coming years.
The first question: is this even legal? The answer, as always: it depends. As of 2012, Nevada, Florida and California have enacted laws addressing automated vehicles. (In June 2011, Nevada was actually the first jurisdiction in the world to legalize autonomous vehicles operation on public roads). Other state laws do not address autonomous cars– perhaps the drafters didn’t internalize The Jetsons’ lessons – but don’t explicitly prohibit them either. Driving licensure laws would need to be completely redone, as all drivers will, in effect, become passengers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would need to promulgate new vehicle safety standards to address the technology and software.
Self-driving cars bring up all sorts of thorny liability issues. If you’re hit by a self-driving car, who can you sue? The human in the self-driving car? The car’s manufacturer? If the burden gets attached to manufacturers, insurance rules and policies would need to be re-written. How laws get written will impact the industry. If laws are punitive towards manufacturers, fewer companies may enter the market because of the liability; if laws place the blame on car-owners, they may be less likely to buy the technology.
Driverless cars may also change the look and feel of cities. Google envisions self-driving cars acting as chauffeurs: dropping owners off, driving off to a remote location with less congestion, and then picking us up when needed. (Though this would increase miles driven, and thus conceivably increase gas used and congestion, driverless cars will be so efficient there may not be an increase in congestion or gas consumption.) This feature could revolutionize the look and feel of urban spaces, as all the land devoted to parking lots could be transformed into other uses. (Some cities have as much as 1/3 of their useable land mass dedicated to parking, and a parking spot can cost up to $5,000 to build.) Imagine parks and playing fields outside of big box stores rather than a sea of parking spaces. Zoning codes would have to adapt and eliminate their extensive parking requirements.
Driverless cars may also completely transform our conception of the personal vehicle. Currently our cars spend 98% of their lives parked. Car sharing companies like Zipcar, Cars2Go, and Relay Rides attempt to change that statistic by putting our cars to work when they would otherwise be idle. Driverless cars could do similar double duty: after dropping us off at work, our cars could go serve as a taxi or delivery vehicle. Personal cars, then, become quasi-business cars, and livery laws as well as the tax code might need to evolve to reflect this shift. As personal cars morph into taxis, a number of people may choose to opt out of car-ownership, and simply order self-driving taxis on demand.
There’s no promise that driverless cars will ever become marketable, or that consumers will accept them. Even if they do become available to consumers, it may be decades before driverless cars transform our cities and our society. Nevertheless, our legal system must be prepared for the possibility. Today, a driver’s license comes with rights and responsibilities (and a guaranteed-to-be terrible picture), and to accommodate driverless cars, we’ll need to change the moral and legal framework around driving. Given the lucrative prospects of driverless vehicles, there is no doubt that lobbyists will be hard at work to change our laws. No matter how they get changed, behind the first driverless car there will be a driverless ambulance chaser, looking for a case to bring to court.