No longer a science-fiction fantasy, the car of the future will be driverless. In the US, in California and Nevada, test driving of automated vehicles has already begun. Closer to home, the UK and Sweden have announced plans to allow automated vehicles take to the roads. Given the casualties associated with driver error and fatigue and the environmental impact of traffic-filled roads, the prospect of safer, less congested highways is to be welcomed. However, as automated vehicles become a closer reality, the existing legal landscape will be challenged.
The Existing Legal Framework
The development of automated vehicles disrupts the rationale underpinning the regulation of vehicles. The legislative framework is constructed around the assumption of a responsible driver. Licensing and insurance obligations, taxation, civil and criminal sanctions attach to a human driver/owner of a vehicle. A degree of automation has already been incorporated into many vehicles, through the introduction of auto-braking, parking and cruise control features. However, the notion of an entirely automated vehicle has yet to be tested.
The 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic (which has 95 Signatories, including Ireland) states, at Article 8.1, that [e]very vehicle or combination of vehicles proceeding as a unit shall have a driver. While conventionally, we would interpret a driver to be a human operator of the vehicle, there would appear to be scope for a reinterpretation of the notion of a driver. Prof Bryant Walker Smith of Stanford Law School has argued that the possibility for human intervention in the operation of a vehicle ought to be sufficient to satisfy this requirement.
The existing legal framework does not provide for artificial intelligence, nor responsibility for automated actions.
The challenge for legislators will be to develop a framework which is sufficiently flexible to adapt to rapidly changing technology while robust enough to protect the public interest. We may see a patchwork approach emerging – product liability could be extended, vehicle safety standards and the rules of the road could be modified.
In the criminal sphere, the issue of crimes of dangerous driving and driving while intoxicated will hopefully fall away. However, despite the elimination of driver error, dangers may remain. In the US, the FBI has raised concerns that automated vehicles may be used as weapons. Indeed, with the grave security challenges that...