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Curves Ahead: Navigating an Uncertain Regulatory Path in the Coming Age of Self-Driving Vehicles

“Look, Ma – no hands!”

Chances are, a much younger you exclaimed this at high volume as your two-wheeled chariot rolled (somewhat) unsteadily down a neighborhood sidewalk one fine day. Arms extended into the air, feet pedaling madly, you grinned from ear to ear as you unburdened yourself from the tether of hand-controlled cycling. In that fleeting moment, life was good; anything was possible (including scrapped knees, unfortunately).

That was then. But soon – and some say very soon – we all may get another opportunity to proclaim our hands-free navigational prowess, because like it or not, the driverless vehicle is on its way.

When it finally arrives here in Ohio – and no one’s too sure exactly when that might occur, things will get, well, interesting on several fronts.

Let’s look closely the legal questions, because there are many, and they are formidable. Currently, self-driving cars are legal in the U.S. – not because they’ve been made legal, but rather, because they’ve never been deemed illegal. Yet as cars with at least some autonomous capabilities make their way onto roadways here in Ohio and elsewhere, state and federal lawmakers will be compelled to take some degree of action in this regard.

That’s where the road gets bumpy. Here’s why:

  • Policymakers aren’t well-equipped to regulate self-driving vehicles. The technology is cutting-edge, it’s complicated, and different companies are developing and deploying it in different ways. Things are moving fast, and as this landscape continues to shift, it’s tough for anyone, including federal and state officials, to keep abreast of any and all developments.
  • Laws are inconsistent in states that already have adopted laws regulating how self-driving technology is tested and sold. California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada and Washington, D.C. have adopted laws in this arena; but there’s inconsistency between those laws, so the role of precedent in future lawmaking efforts is somewhat diminished.
  • Traditional legal jurisdictions of state and federal regulation are unclear when they’re applied to autonomous technology. Currently, federal jurisdiction applies to the technology within cars themselves (e.g., seat belts, airbags), while state jurisdiction applies to the operation of vehicles vis-a-vis traffic regulations. Yet a self-driving vehicle uses hardware and software to control how and when the vehicle moves. Therefore, it’s unclear who should even be drafting the rules, let alone what those rules should ultimately be.
  • It’s very challenging for anyone to regulate a moving target like evolving technology. How self-driving vehicles operate today or tomorrow may well be different than how they operate five, 10 or 20 years down the road. As a Google spokesperson told Wired recently, “It’s really hard to try and anticipate how the technology might be used in the future and write laws for every eventuality. We think policymakers should learn about the technology and see how people want to use it first before putting a ceiling on innovation.”
  • Testing and public safety aren’t mutually exclusive. In other words, it’s ironic that the safety of self-driving vehicles can’t be properly judged without testing them on public roads – and yet these vehicles really shouldn’t be on public roads until they’re deemed safe.

The universe of ambiguity that currently surrounds self-driving vehicles is bound to end at some point relatively soon. Why? Because everyone involved wants it to:

  • Automakers and related companies need guidelines so that they have parameters in which to develop and evolve their products. The last thing they want is to invest money and time developing technologies or approaches that eventually are prohibited by law.
  • Federal and state authorities would prefer uniform standards, because they would provide a consistent definition of vehicle safety, and a consistent means of measuring it.
  • Consumers will be well-served by uniform standards and laws as well. After all, it would be quite unsettling to pilot a self-driving vehicle from one state with one set of laws into another state with a different set of laws.

Ultimately, it may end up that the companies driving innovation in this arena play a key role in helping lawmakers decide how self-driving vehicle technology is deployed. Regardless, self-driving vehicles are out of the garage, figuratively speaking. According to a May 15, 2015 Wired article, Google, Audio, Mercedes-Benz and Nissan plan to offer cars with some autonomous operation within a few years. Others will surely follow. As that occurs, let’s hope that de facto legality evolves into a consistent legal framework of sensible rules and standards that encourage innovation – and keep everyone safe from scrapped knees, or worse.

The attorneys at Nager, Romaine & Schneiberg Co., L.P.A. will continue to actively monitor legislation that affects Ohio consumers and businesses. For more information, please contact us today at 216-289-4740, Toll Free at (855) Got-Hurt, or by filling out our No-Risk Consultation form.

Disclaimer: The information in this blog post (“post”) is provided for general informational purposes only, and may not reflect the current law in your jurisdiction. No information contained in this post should be construed as legal advice, nor is it intended to be a substitute for legal counsel on any subject matter. No reader of this post should act or refrain from acting on the basis of any information included in, or accessible through, this Post without seeking the appropriate legal or other professional advice on the particular facts and circumstances at issue from a lawyer licensed in the recipient’s state, country or other appropriate licensing jurisdiction.
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