Many people in the auto industry believe driverless cars are the future.
Depending on who you believe, these cars will either take over the market
completely or be a large part of it within the next decade.
Many states have not yet decided how to treat driverless cars legally.
Florida is way ahead of those states. Although many of our state’s
residents don’t realize it, we already have a driverless car law,
and it doesn’t even require someone to be behind the wheel.
Our original driverless car law required someone with a driver’s
license to be in the car and able to take it over if the computerized
driving system failed. That’s not true anymore. Under our more recent
law, a person doesn’t have to be in the car at all. As long as the
system can bring the car to a stop if the technology fails, the “operator”
can be monitoring the car at home from a smartphone app. That’s
all Florida’s law requires.
Our state’s race to be at the forefront of driverless technology
leaves some pretty big unanswered questions. The first is who is liable
when the driverless car causes a crash. Is it the car manufacturer? Is
it the operator, who may not even be in the car when the crash occurred?
Could it be the company which wrote the code for the artificial intelligence
system the car uses? If the car was connected to the operator through
an app, could the app’s creator be on the hook as well? And of course:
can a police officer give a driverless car a ticket, and if so, who pays it?
None of these questions have been answered. Although car manufacturers
want a uniform set of federal standards which will let them deploy driverless
cars throughout America, the Federal Department of Transportation is not
there yet. Instead, it has adopted a more cautious wait-and-see approach
to this emerging technology. It’s possible that it doesn’t
want to issue regulations which become obsolete as the technology outruns
the regulatory scheme.
Historically, cars have been treated legally as dangerous metal boxes,
and almost all responsibility for their safe operation has fallen on drivers.
Driverless cars may end up in a different place; they may be treated as
product, like a poorly engineered airbag which blows out shrapnel. No one really
knows for sure, however, and there are limits on how well products liability
law can be applied to what looks like a revolutionary change on our highways.
There’s no doubt that driverless cars may be best for all of us in
the long run, because they don’t make the kind of mistakes that
human drivers make. But we may go through a bumpy transition while these
serious issues get sorted out. The courts are going to have a lot of work
to do in the next few years as more and more driverless cars appear on
Florida’s roads. To say there will be interesting challenges ahead
for people in the automotive, technological, insurance, and legal fields
may qualify as the understatement of the year.