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The legal implications of driverless cars

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By now nearly everyone has heard of Google’s driverless car program, a program which develops technology for autonomous cars. Google made recent news at CES 2014 when they announced an alliance with Nvidia, GM, Honda, Audi, and Hyundai to install Android technology into cars. Sebastian Thrun, the Director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and co-inventor of Google Street View, currently leads the Google driverless car program.

The legal implications of driverless cars

IN 2012, Google posted a Youtube video showing Steve Mahan, a legally blind man, being taken on a ride by a self-driven Toyota Prius. In the video’s description, it states that the pre-programmed route took Mahan to a drive-through restaurant, the dry cleaners, and then back home. Google showed through that video that self driving cars could hold vast potential for disabled people, and all people alike.

Google’s self driving cars reportedly use over $150,000 of equipment including a LIDAR system. The LIDAR laser allows the car to generate a highly detailed 3D map of the surrounding environment. The 3D maps are then combined with high-resolution maps of the world, producing data models that allow the car to drive itself.

Although Google seems to have no immediate plans to market self driving vehicles, it can be assumed that they will market their technology to car manufacturers. One California attorney stated, “The technology is ahead of the law in many areas.” Many states in the U.S. have yet to pass laws allowing for driverless cars, some states surrounding Google headquarters have already taken steps to allow for Google’s tests. Nevada passed a law in 2011, which permits self-driving cars in the state. In 2012, Florida became the second state in the United States to allow for the testing of autonomous cars on public roads. Lastly, California became the third state to legalize the practice later in 2012 when the bill was signed into law at Google HQ in Mountain View.

Other companies are also jumping on the driverless car bandwagon, such as General Motors, Audi, Toyota, and Nissan, just to name a few. All of these driverless cars share the feature that no human input is required for the car to drive. This makes the situation a bit tricky when considering liability in the case of an accident. In order to avoid liability, manufacturers may ask consumers and insurers to take on all associated risks as a condition of purchase for driverless cars. However, that begs the question: why would consumers take on this risk when they could more easily buy a car that they could drive themselves?

As with the previous example of Steve Mahan, driverless cars could hold a great deal of potential for disabled populations. And, in those cases, it makes sense for consumers to take on the associated risks, as with human-driven cars. However, it is interesting to imagine the legal future of this new technology, and the changing landscape of ITS. Before driverless cars become widespread, we can expect to see consumers, community members, local governments, automakers, and members of the ICT community coming together to discuss the legislation that must pass to ensure that liability issues can be addressed.

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