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Self-Driving Car Computers Are 'Drivers'

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. | Last updated on

Lately the news from the Department of Transportation reads like science fiction, and last week was no exception. The DOT declared that it would count computers as drivers in cars driven by software systems, adding another delicious detail to the unfolding story of an auto-piloted USA.

The announcement came just shortly after the DOT announced that, within six months, it will have model regulation for autonomous cars that it hopes states will adopt. The department is also addressing the questions of carmakers, according to Wired.

Computers Are People Too

In response to a query from Google regarding its self-driving car developments, the Department of Transportation last week said that it would count the software system and car computers as the driver. "If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the 'driver' as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving," the DOT wrote.

As it ramps up efforts to regulate autonomous cars and come up with a consistent approach across the country and across manufacturers, the DOT faces a slew of difficult questions. And it may face some opposition to its approach.

While the DOT offered guidance to Google about its software system being a driver, California's Department of Motor Vehicles Chief, Brian Soublet, told a meeting of the American Bar Association that he wants to see human drivers in every vehicle.

California is familiar with the story of self-driving cars already, being home to Google, which has been testing its vehicles on the streets. The DMV's Soublet believes it will only be 3-5 years before autonomous cars are a regular feature on the roads and he is concerned.

Dear Google, Yours DOT

"This letter will one day be in a museum of technology history--or at least legal history," Bryant Walker Smith, from the University of South Carolina School of Law and the Center for Internet and Society, told Wired. But Smith is a student of self-driving cars and the law's handling of this new technology, and says, "where technology meets law, the devil is in the details."

The DOT's letter to Google certainly gives pause, even for the most enthusiastic futurists. "NHTSA will interpret 'driver' in the context of Google's described motor vehicle design as referring to the SDS [self-driving system], and not to any of the vehicle occupants," it states.

So does that mean you send the car to court to take care of its traffic tickets? Presumably, car owners will be responsible for the actions of their software systems. And probably owners will blame carmakers for the actions of their computers, so though little else is certain about self-driving cars, it is safe to predict more product liability lawsuits in the future.

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