What Will the Law Do About Autonomous Vehicles?

17 Pages Posted: 13 Jul 2013

See all articles by Dorothy Glancy

Dorothy Glancy

Santa Clara University - School of Law

Date Written: May 23, 2013


Autonomous vehicles are just beginning to emerge on roads and highways all over the world. The autonomous vehicle prototypes available now provide some clues to understanding how law will apply to this developing technology. There appear to be several types of autonomous vehicles. Most of the experimental autonomous vehicles tend to be either self-contained or interconnected or some combination of these two types. Another category of autonomous vehicles, a self-willed autonomous vehicle, appears only in fiction - often fantasy or horror stories about vehicles run amok or falling in love with humans. More benign self-willed vehicles include Herbie the Love Bug and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Until the singularity, when machines are smarter than humans are, self-willed autonomous vehicles are likely to exist in our imaginations, rather than on the roads.

It is not clear what the market for autonomous vehicles will be. Driving enthusiasts will probably avoid them. However, differently abled persons, such as persons with disabilities, as well as children and the elderly are likely to find autonomous vehicles especially attractive.

Autonomous vehicles may possibly appeal to commuters, who find long daily commutes over boring roads tedious. However, whether ordinary consumers will be inclined to purchase autonomous vehicles remains a matter of speculation.

In very general terms, autonomous vehicles are self-driving cars operated by artificial intelligence using automated controls and, usually, GPS. Internal vehicle sensors constantly monitor the car’s mechanical operation - such as its speed, steering, braking, and the like. The differences between the self-contained and interconnected autonomous vehicles lie in the ways in which the two types assess the dynamic driving environment on the roads where they travel.

Self-contained autonomous vehicles gather and keep all information within the vehicle. They collect data from outward facing sensors (cameras, lidar, radar, etc.) to visualize and predict the changing roadway situation around the moving car. Most of the self-contained autonomous vehicle prototypes require that roadways on which these vehicles travel be mapped in advance by a human driver.

On the other hand, the interconnected type of autonomous vehicle relies on real-time communications from other vehicles or the roadside to provide data about what is happening in the roadway environment in which it operates. Interconnected autonomous vehicles do not require pre-mapped routes, but rather rely on data about the driving environment that is communicated into the vehicle from outside sources.

These technical differences result in a number of interesting legal questions that may have different answers depending on the type of autonomous vehicle. How should legal rules determine civil and criminal legal liability, for example, when an autonomous vehicle breaks a traffic rule or damages another’s vehicle or is involved in vehicular manslaughter? Products liability could be placed on the manufacturer or seller of the vehicle, on the hardware provider, or on the maker of the software used by the vehicle’s artificial intelligence. Privacy rights, insurance law, and regulatory jurisdiction have yet to be determined. As autonomous vehicles’ new, innovative transportation technology develops, the law also will need to innovate.

Suggested Citation

Glancy, Dorothy, What Will the Law Do About Autonomous Vehicles? (May 23, 2013). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2293051 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2293051

Dorothy Glancy (Contact Author)

Santa Clara University - School of Law ( email )

500 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95053
United States

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