We have previously written about the intriguing possibilities of self-driving cars. This topic is especially interesting to people here in the Bay Area, because Google's autonomous vehicle technology seems to be further along than that of other groups working on this important project.
In December, we wrote about proposed rules issued by the California Department of Motor Vehicles that would require licensed, human drivers to "be present inside the vehicle and be capable of taking control in the event of a technology failure or other emergency." Critics have said that these rules could really slow the progress of innovation. But earlier this month, news from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration seemingly cleared away a major regulatory hurdle.
In a letter that the NHTSA sent to Google, the agency said it "will interpret 'driver' in the context of Google's described motor vehicle design as referring to the (self-driving system), and not to any of the vehicle occupants." In other words, the car's self-driving software could be considered a "driver" for regulatory purposes.
The possibility of self-driving vehicles is exciting from both a convenience standpoint and a safety standpoint. Human error is the cause of or a contributing factor to the vast majority of car accidents. Many tech enthusiasts have predicted that once self-driving vehicles become ubiquitous, the rate of car accidents in the U.S. will decrease dramatically.
On the other hand, we truly don't know how such software will perform. The high number of safety recalls in recent years is a reminder that automakers are not always giving vehicle safety the attention it deserves. If and when accidents do occur, auto companies (and software developers they contract with) could potentially be held liable as both negligent manufacturers and negligent drivers.
The time for self-driving vehicles has not arrived yet, but there is reason to believe it is just around the corner. Hopefully, regulators will not wait to address these important liability questions.