Are Driving Laws Fit for Driverless Vehicles?

As self-driving vehicles come to public roadways, legal fellow Bryant Walker Smith questions whether existing driving laws can adequately apply to this new form of driving.

by / December 27, 2012
Google displays its self-driving vehicle at a press conference in Sacramento, Calif., on March 1. Photo by Sarah Rich.

With the advancements of technology, autonomous or self-driving vehicles are slowly becoming a reality on some American roadways. States like California, Nevada and Florida recently passed laws that would regulate the testing of autonomous vehicles.
But Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School and the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford University in California, said now that these vehicles are hitting the roadways,many questions must be asked regarding existing driving laws and how they should be applied to these self-driving vehicles, according to an analysis in NewScientist. 

In addition to road infrastructure, Smith said that driving also deals with legal infrastructure -- laws that surround the way a vehicle is governed and driver license requirements.

“One major question remains though,” Smith said. “Will tomorrow’s cars and trucks have to adapt to today’s legal infrastructure, or will that infrastructure adapt to them?”

Smith questioned that when an individual is inside the self-driving vehicle, what is his or her legal responsibility -- what should that driver be allowed to do (or not be allowed to do) when inside the vehicle? In Nevada’s autonomous vehicle driving law, for instance, the vehicle operator cannot “drive” drunk, so clarifying the operator’s role once inside the vehicle will need to be more clearly defined.

“For now, however, the appropriate role of a self-driving vehicle’s human operator is not merely a legal question," Smith said. "It is also a technical one."

Photo: Google displays its self-driving vehicle at a press conference in Sacramento, Calif., on March 1. By Sarah Rich.