Driverless cars on horizon

Mention autonomous vehicles, and many conjure up visions of the Jetsons’ vehicle flying the family across town. While the technology for that vision likely remains far in the future, automobile and technology companies likeGoogle are mapping a future where technology assists — and one day takes over — for the attentive driver.

Improved safety is the primary driver behind much of the technology implemented in recent years — anti-lock brakes, stability track control, event data recorders, back-up cameras, lane departure warning, drowsy driver warning and preemptive breaking. Devices can be installed to provide feedback to the driver, parents and insurance companies.

Past safety improvements include safety belts, air bags, steel beam doors, padded panels, crumple zones and tempered glass. Taken together, these factors, along with enhanced safety strategies directed toward driver education, enforcement and emergency medical services, have produced significant declines in crash deaths and serious injuries on our roadways.

Additionally, within the next few years, vehicles will assess their environment and communicate with other vehicles, cloud data bases and the road. And let’s not forget, much of the technology may reside in the smart phones we carry in the vehicle.

While these technological advances are designed to assist the driver and improve safety, they still require an attentive driver in control of the vehicle and therefore responsible, or as lawyers say, “liable,” for the consequences of a crash.

But what happens with an inattentive driver in a truly autonomous vehicle? Does the driver retain the same liability? Or, in the event of a crash, is the manufacturer of the vehicle or the technology liable? And if not them, then who?

As vehicle technology advances and demand for the technology grows, this question of liability will challenge federal regulators and state legislatures. A handful of states have passed laws requiring drivers of truly autonomous vehicles to always be in control, or immediately available to take over control, of the vehicles while in operation. That way, the driver remains liable for the operation of the vehicle. But if we accept the premise that truly autonomous vehicles will one day operate more safely than human-controlled vehicles, is this the correct answer?

It’s an issue policymakers have confronted since the days of “horseless carriages.” With the evolution of vehicle technology and the law, we have seen an apportionment of liability. Thus, the legal system generally looks to see if the driver, vehicle manufacturer or road design is at fault to apportion liability in event of a crash.

Concurrently, since 1966, the U.S. Department of Transportation, through the agency now known as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, sets Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that vehicle manufacturers must follow. NHTSA’s goal is to prevent crashes, injuries and deaths on our nation’s roadways. The agency is charged with assessing new vehicle technology and how it interfaces with drivers. Like air bags and back-up cameras, NHTSA may deem some technological advances so beneficial, they become mandated for new vehicles.

Other anticipated benefits of autonomous vehicles include more productive commutes, less congestion and improved air quality. A new class of restricted drivers — seniors unable to drive, and those disabled by medical or physical reasons — will have new transportation options. These benefits have the potential to create tremendous economic benefits.

But will state legislators and federal regulators ever allow truly autonomous vehicles? As more than just safety is anticipated, the market will place tremendous pressure on policymakers to move in that direction. As policymakers know from experience, the law will influence technological advancement — either to encourage or delay it, but rarely to prevent it.

Ironically, if they get it right and the technology becomes successful, it may well be mandated, as has already occurred with innumerable safety advances we now take for granted.

Who knows when, but perhaps one day, we may welcome seeing drivers imitate George Jetson sleeping behind the wheel!

Robert F. Dallas, an Atlanta attorney, was director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety under Gov. Sonny Perdue.