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Self-Driving Vehicles: Legal Considerations and the Future

On February 14, 2016, a driverless vehicle owned by Google was involved in the first noted at-fault crash on a public road in Mountain View, California. The accident occurred when one of Google's self-driving vehicles (a modified Lexus SUV) rear-ended a bus. The incident was low-speed and was widely reported as being “minor" in nature; no injuries resulted.

Autonomous vehicles (also called driverless, self-driving, or robotic cars) are quickly becoming a reality and have the potential to have far-reaching consequences that go beyond the simple act of getting from Point A to Point B. At a lecture on the future of driving held at the UBC Alumni Centre on March 2, 2016, speaker Brad Templeton raised a number of interesting issues about the far-reaching and myriad effects that driverless cars will have on our daily lives. Mr. Templeton is an entrepreneur, software architect, and online civil rights advocate who more recently worked as an advisor on Google's driverless car program for two years. He is a leading voice on the topic of autonomous vehicles.

In May 2015, Google released a report saying that it was test-driving its autonomous vehicles about 10,000 miles (16,000 kilometers) per week on public streets. In September 2015, the municipality of Milton Keynes in Great Britain allowed driverless cars onto its roads, and there are plans to introduce autonomous vehicles into traffic in Greenwich, near London, in the very near future. Volvo ambitiously announced that it hopes to have 100 self-driving vehicles on the roads near its headquarters in Sweden by 2017. Meanwhile, cities around the world are clamouring to attract driverless car companies in the hopes of becoming the next Detroit or Stuttgart.

Most of the major automobile manufacturers in Germany, Japan, Korea, and the United States have all thrown their hat into the driverless car ring, and several have announced plans to roll out robotic vehicles in the early 2020s. On the other end of the spectrum, traditional giants of the tech industry are also making great strides in the area of self-driving automobiles, and according to Mr. Templeton, are outperforming their competitors in the automotive sector. The clear frontrunner by all accounts is Google, whose vehicles have self-driven over 1 million miles (over 1.6 million kilometers); the company is currently test-driving cars on public roads in California, Texas, and Washington State.

According to Mr. Templeton, the most important part of the self-driving car will be its software rather than the physical automobile itself. Developers are working on technology that will ensure that robotic vehicles are safer than those operated by humans. Currently, autonomous vehicles rely on “LiDAR", a technology combining laser light and radar (hence the name) to survey the road upon which the robotic car is driving; lidar and the vehicle's software work together to drive in the safest possible way.

The changes that the public will see with the wide-spread introduction of driverless vehicles will be similar to the radical shift that took place when the automobile was first unveiled at the end of the 19th century. As quickly as the car eclipsed the horse and carriage as the preferred mode of transportation, Mr. Templeton suggests that the driverless car will soon overshadow the "old-fashioned" automobile. Aside from changing how we view the mere act of driving, Mr. Templeton also suggests that driverless vehicles will affect us in less obvious parts of our lives. Here are some examples of the wide-reaching effects Mr. Templeton says we can expect self-driving vehicles:

  • Accessibility: driverless vehicles will make transportation accessible to those who traditionally are not able to drive vehicles on their own. The first member of the public to "drive" a Google vehicle was a blind man, as shown in this video.

  • Safety: driverless vehicles would potentially reduce (or ideally, eliminate) the number of collisions caused by impaired drivers. Autonomous vehicles will continue to build off of already-existing safety equipment (for example, self-braking vehicles) found in new vehicles currently being sold in the marketplace.

  • Energy and reduced environmental footprint: the potential for driverless vehicles to rely on alternative energy sources is significant, reducing our reliance on oil. Self-driving vehicles are currently being designed to be extremely efficient, and as a result, will a less deleterious effect on the environment.

  • Reduced traffic congestion: "smart" driverless vehicles will eventually be able to monitor traffic patterns in traditionally congested areas. Even more, parts of the urban core could be modified to maximize the efficient flow of vehicles by turning two-way streets into one-way streets depending on the needs of any particular time of day (in other words, think of a futuristic equivalent of the counter-flow lane). Self-driving vehicles that are designed for one or two people would also have the potential to increase the actual number of people on the road by squeezing a higher number of smaller-sized vehicles onto existing roadways, thereby further reducing traffic congestion.

  • On-demand ride services and reduced vehicle ownership: Mr. Templeton strongly believes that on-demand ride services (popularized by companies like Uber and Lyft; this service is, notably, currently unavailable in British Columbia) will become even more mainstream with self-driving vehicles, thereby reducing the desire of many individuals to own their own vehicles. In Mr. Templeton's view, using a self-driving vehicle service will become the norm as people stop buying vehicles based on what they need for their lifestyle and open up to the idea of accessing the variety offered by a fleet of ride-share vehicles based on what they may need for a particular day.

  • Parking: building off of the increased reliance on on-demand ride services, Mr. Templeton suggests that the need for parking lots will decrease significantly because people will no longer need to worry about parking their own vehicles. A reduced need for parking spaces opens up options for shared green space or more land for housing, and urban development and planning is changed as a result.

  • Increased productivity: if people no longer need to drive, Mr. Templeton suggests that many self-driving "commuter" cars may feature desks or productivity stations for riders to work, thereby increasing productivity and output.

  • Delivery of consumer goods: robotic cars could introduce a new era of home delivery of all forms of consumer goods. Amazon has famously tested its airborne drones, but ground-based delivery robots are also being tested by other companies.

The first Google driverless car accident raises some interesting legal questions, including:

  • Who will bear liability for accidents?

  • Will our traditional views on fault and apportionment of liability need to be revisited if there is no human tortfeasor?

  • Can the principles of negligence be properly extended to AI?

  • Will automobile insurers continue to pay for compensation to injured parties or will the burden fall upon manufacturers and/or software developers?

  • Will motor vehicle accident litigation involve more product liability issues?

  • What happens in instances where inclement or dangerous weather (for example a snow storm or black ice) is a contributing factor to an accident? Will coverage be affected?

  • Will impaired driving statistics fall?

  • Will incidents of car theft decrease?

  • How will liability be determined between the various companies whose components, products, and/or programs go into the making of a single driverless vehicle?

  • If automobile insurers remain a major player in the realm of motor vehicle personal injury cases, how will policyholders be affected?

  • What constitutes as "operating a motor vehicle"?

  • Will minors or children be able to "drive" autonomous vehicles unsupervised?

  • Will impaired individuals be permitted to "operate" a driverless car?

  • What are the legal implications if a self-driving vehicle's software is hacked and an accident results?

  • protected?

  • What medical conditions would preclude an individual from driving a motor vehicle?

  • Most importantly, will driverless vehicles actually be safer?

While we won't know how the law will respond to most of these questions for some time, a few answers have started to take shape. For example, the president of Volvo promised that his company would accept full liability for accidents involving Volvo vehicles while in autonomous mode. The U.S. National Highway Transportation Safety Administration stated that Google's AI would be considered a "driver" when operating its driverless vehicles. Although the driverless vehicle technology continues to be developed and refined, Mr. Templeton says that the features built into the driverless vehicles' software will unequivocally result in fewer accidents, especially fatal ones. This, he says, will have an enormous effect on the insurance industry, as premiums will decrease as the number of accidents shrinks.

How these developments will shape the law in Canada is currently unknown, but it is clear that the areas of torts, insurance, criminal law, and product liability all stand to see substantial changes in the coming decades. For the time being, though, Mr. Templeton believes that people will likely remain driving "the old-fashioned way" for several more years, even decades. Nevertheless, while the real effect autonomous vehicles will have on the everyday lives of ordinary people remains to be seen, the future is clearly not as far away as many originally thought.

Mr. Templeton’s lecture “The Future of Self-driving Cars” is available as a podcast through the UBC Alumni website.

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