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Can You Be Charged With Road Rage Against an Autonomous Vehicle?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on November 06, 2018 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The robots were supposed to save us from ourselves. Artificial intelligence, in the form of self-driving cars, were designed to cut down on the millions of human error-caused auto accidents every year. These polite and rule-following autonomous automobiles were also going to reduce the number of road rage incidents. Alas, that didn't happen.

Recent incident reports from San Francisco, the cradle of self-driving civilization, detailed two separate attacks on autonomous vehicles, meaning no one, not even driverless cars, are safe from road rage. But is that still a crime if we're attacking a robot?

Humans v. Hatchbacks

As Forbes reported earlier this year, the California Department of Motor Vehicles cited two man-on-autonomous-vehicle incidents. In one, a man "literally tackled the car on its left side against the hatchback and rear bumper with his entire body," after shouting and running across the street, "against the 'do not walk' symbol," according to the DMV report. In another incident, a self-driving car was stopped behind a cab, when the cab's driver exited his vehicle and punched the front passenger-side window of the other vehicle.

No one was hurt in either altercation, although both the experimental cars had a "hands off" driver behind the wheel.

AI and Assault

California's penal code defines assault as "an unlawful attempt, coupled with a present ability, to commit a violent injury on the person of another." (Notice the attempt does not need to be completed, nor does a person even need to contact another to be charged or found guilty of assault.)

In addition, the state's vehicle code specifically refers to "road rage" assaults, giving courts the discretion to suspend a person's license and/or order them "to complete a court-approved anger management or 'road rage' course," making California the only state to make "road rage" a legal term of art in its criminal statutes. Which seems apt, seeing as how it was television anchors in Los Angeles who originally coined the phrase.

Most states have aggressive or reckless driving statutes aimed at road rage, but those only cover what a person does behind the wheel. What about pedestrians attacking a self-driving car? Well, considering the fact that there were human operators in the cars, both incidents could be charged as assault under California law, though it unclear whether either would invoke the state's road rage penalties, which appear reserved for assault with a deadly weapon (i.e., with a car, not against one) or "by any means of force likely to produce great bodily injury."

Road rage is a problem, and it's possible to be charged with a road rage-related crime, even if you're raging against a machine.

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