The Future of Driving

Will the law let us have driverless cars?

A couple of years ago, Ryan Avent of The Economist bet Tim Lee that his newborn daughter would have access to a self-driving car by the time she's sixteen. I was skeptical, not because of the technological hurdles, but because of the regulatory and liability issues. Much to my surprise, however, driverless cars became one of the big economic stories of 2012. Google has made enormous progress, not only on making the technology work, but on getting state legislatures to allow them to run on public roads.

But a recent article from Slate reminds us that there's still a ways to go:

Consider the most basic question: Are self-driving vehicles legal today? For the United States, the short answer is that they probably can be (the long answer runs to nearly 100 pages). Granted, such vehicles must have drivers, and drivers must be able to control their vehicles—these are international requirements that date back to 1926, when horses and cattle were far more likely to be "driverless" than cars. Regardless, these rules, and many others that assume a human presence, do not necessarily prohibit vehicles from steering, braking, and accelerating by themselves. Indeed, three states—Nevada, Florida, and most recently California—have passed laws to make that conclusion explicit, at least to a point.

Still unclear, even with these early adopters, is the precise responsibility of the human user, assuming one exists. Must the "drivers" remain vigilant, their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road? If not, what are they allowed to do inside, or outside, the vehicle? Under Nevada law, the person who tells a self-driving vehicle to drive becomes its driver. Unlike the driver of an ordinary vehicle, that person may send text messages. However, they may not "drive" drunk—even if sitting in a bar while the car is self-parking. Broadening the practical and economic appeal of self-driving vehicles may require releasing their human users from many of the current legal duties of driving.

If you have to sit at the wheel and stay pretty alert, a driverless car sounds worse than actually driving. At least when you're driving, you have something to think about. But I can see why regulators and legislators might be leery of allowing cars to zip around the road without someone to operate them.

Hopefully, the improvements will come incrementally enough that legislators will have time to get used to them; if everyone is letting the car drive with no oversight, eventually legislators will become comfortable recognizing that our cars don't need us any more. But I'm betting that Ryan Avent's daughter will still need to get a driver's license if she wants to travel outside of dense urban areas.