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Driverless Cars Are Coming to California: Are Our Laws Ready?

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) recently approved rules that will allow driverless cars to travel on public roads. While these autonomous vehicles are still in the testing phase, it is time to start thinking about how our driving laws will need to change.

Under the Autonomous Vehicle Testing Rules, operators must undergo training, which includes “defensive driver training, including practical experience in recovering from hazardous driving scenarios” as well as “instruction that matches the level of the autonomous test vehicle driver’s experience operating the specific type of automated driving system technology with the level of technical maturity of the automated system.” Even when they are not technically “driving,” operators must sit in the driver seat and be capable of immediately taking control of the vehicle.

Manufacturers must report any type of accident or any situation where the autonomous technology disengages during operation to the DMV within 10 days. They must also maintain $5 million insurance or surety bond.

The new regulations are a good start, but they only cover the testing of driverless cars. Because California’s current driving laws are based on the assumption that there is a human driver behind the wheel, lawmakers will need to pass new laws or drastically change ones to reflect the new technology.

Below are just a few of the legal questions that will need to be addressed:

  • Who is responsible for crashes caused by self-driving cars, the human passenger or the carmaker?
  • Who is liable for traffic violations, such as failing to yield or stop at a red light, if the vehicle was operating autonomously?
  • How will distracted driving laws be applied to “drivers” who may no longer need to devote their attention to the road?

At least one California agency has started the rulemaking process. The DMV is currently working on regulations for the public operation of autonomous vehicles, which are expected to be ready by January 1, 2015.