In the wake of Google’s launch of self-contained computerized vehicles, California State Senator Alex Padilla recently introduced legislation regarding the automated vehicles similar to Nevada’s preexisting laws. Nevada, usually noteworthy for legalized gambling and prostitution, may have a new feather in its cap as the premier state to register these experimental cars with the Department of Motor Vehicles and allow these vehicles on its roadways. Nevada’s law also requires that the vehicles include the capability for drivers to override the controls and that each car be programmed to safely park itself on the side of the road should it encounter programming problems and the operator fails to take control.
The advent of these new automotive modern marvels bring with them a whole host of uncertain, challenging and perplexing issues with regard to liability, responsibility, and privacy. As far as civil liability is concerned, it is anticipated that the number of car accidents will decrease, but the percentage of car manufacturers being sued would increase dramatically. This presents an interesting paradox for the spirit of invention itself; if technology shifts responsibility from driver to manufacturer, the liability costs become a huge disincentive to develop a safer mode of transportation.
This same conundrum was seen in the pharmaceutical sector with the design and dissemination of vaccines. Vaccines save hundreds of thousands of lives a year from diseases, that if uncontrolled could spread quickly amongst the general populous. In spite of their lifesaving properties, many vaccines are also known to cause serious side effects and even death in a small fraction of the population. The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was designed to deal with claims arising from a range of vaccines while providing manufactures insulation from lawsuits. We may see the creation of a similar program to help protect car manufacturers and encourage the continuation of technology to eliminate the root cause of most accidents – human error.
Other interesting issues with which legal scholars and law makers are grappling include the following scenarios:
Say you get into your car after having way more than the standard, “two-beers, ossifffer..”. If you get pulled over, are you breaking driving while intoxicated laws?
And, how exactly does a police officer pull over an automated car? Some suggest that systems could be designed to allow law enforcement to override a car’s external system electronically. Now we have huge Fourth Amendment issues. Also, if vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology is implemented, records could be kept that would make it easy to track a driver’s every move, possibly violating the Constitutional right to privacy. You know marketing execs are salivating and would love to get their hands on all the places you shop during the day.
If your car fails to detect a posted speed limit and you are ticketed for speeding, are you responsible? Would driving now be an issue of strict liability?
What about insurance? Do insurance companies insure the driver or the manufacturer?
What if your car malfunctions and takes you somewhere against your will – is it kidnapping?
Obviously, solutions need to be found to address all of these nuances. But, technology and the law are similar in that regard – they are both an ever-evolving work in progress driven to change by real life challenges that someone in the process never thought to contemplate before implementation. Every outdated case law decision and every scrapped prototype are reminders of the painful process of innovation.