August 07, 2016

Driverless cars in fast-lane development, yet regulations lag, say panelists

Almost a dozen vehicle manufacturers have committed to getting autonomous vehicles on the road by 2020. And, Tesla has already rolled out a vehicle with autopilot capabilities.


As the auto industry pushes forward, are we prepared for the technology’s implications?

During an Aug. 5 program at the American Bar Association Annual Meeting, “Driverless Cars in the Fast Lane: Liability Ahead!” experts discussed the push toward autonomous vehicles and how the technology is outpacing regulations.

“The consequences of not taking safety into consideration could be severe,” said moderator Stephen Wu of the Silicon Valley Law Group on the technology’s implications, noting that vehicle manufacturers like Toyota and Ford have paid more than 4 billion in litigation because of safety issues with current vehicles on the road. “It can be an expensive problem and can result in a loss of life if we get this wrong.

Safety was the primary motivator for Google to begin investing in automated driving in 2009, said panelist Thomas Lue, corporate counsel at Google Inc.

“Driving is actually a very dangerous activity --- 1.2 million people are killed every year around the world and about 35 thousand people die each year in the U.S. alone,” Lue said. “Automated driving systems don’t fall asleep and they don’t get drunk. Google thinks there is a huge potential to improve safety and save lives through this technology.”

As manufacturers race to get autonomous vehicles on the road, specific regulations on use of those vehicles have been slow to follow.

“In examining every state vehicle code, there was very little that prohibited automated driving,” said panelist Bryant Walker Smith, assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina. “There were not any absolute barriers for the most part.”

Smith said he was unable to prove that automated driving was illegal in the majority of states in which he examined the driving laws. He concluded there was a lot of flexibility in existing laws.

The reasoning for the flexibility in most state-mandated driving laws is that a lot of lives have not been lost and a lot of accidents have not yet occurred,” Smith said. “Once we reach the point where real people incur injuries and lawyers begin to closely examine state laws and possible litigation, there will be more clarity in the law.”

Although a handful of states have passed specific laws related to the new technology, most other have not. Smith said that most of the regulations in place at the state and federal levels have to catch up with the technology. “A lot of developers need to make a public safety case -- how they define safety, how they measure it, and how they will continue to monitor it over the lifetime of the systems.”

The panelists agreed, federal and state government officials should be reviewing existing vehicle insurance codes, providing discretion and more resources, and developing new strategies in how the government defines regulations for automated vehicles.

“We should raise the bar on existing driving and lower the bar on automated driving,” said Smith.

Panelists also included Sarah Marie Thornton of the Stanford Center for Automotive Research and Laura Ruettgers of Severson and Werson.

“Driverless Cars in the Fast Lane: Liability Ahead!” was sponsored by the ABA Section of Science & Technology Law.