Right now, the US government has no laws regulating autonomous cars.
Responsibility is an odd concept. It sounds big and scary at first because many of us are unsure if we can handle the pressure, but at the same time we’re excited for new opportunities. This is no truer than for 16-year-olds who are about to graduate from bicycles to automobiles. Making the leap to driving is a huge step and involves government-mandated tests, insurance policies, and the knowledge that you have your life and the lives of those around in your hands.
Ensuring that the world’s army of commuters is safe from a lone wacko behind the wheel are thousands of laws that keep roads free of chaos and assign culpability to responsible parties in case everything goes to hell in the event of an accident. Now that self-driving cars are ushering in massive change to this century-old model of transportation, we must ask ourselves if we are ready to graduate our electronics into the same realm of responsibility occupied by humans. On the legal side of things, we’re still in the dark. So far there are no federal rules governing self-driving cars and only a handful of states even mention autonomous vehicles in their law books.
If predictions about autonomous cars taking over by the mid 2020s hold true, then this means that the entire set of rules for our transportation system will have to be rewritten soon. Take automotive parts regulations for example. Modern cars are heavily regulated with rules dictating how bright lights must shine, how strong seat belts need to be, and pretty much everything in between. But at the moment, automakers can choose to use any kind of sensors, whether radar, ultrasonic, or other, that they deem to be appropriate to allow cars to “see.” The same goes for the software making all the decisions, and this poses a very important question: Who will be making all of the decisions regarding these thinking cars?
Carl Sagan, the famous astrophysicist behind the television show "Cosmos," once said that the combustible combination of power and ignorance, which stems from relying on technology but not understanding how it works, is a recipe for disaster. This argument outlines the importance of having multiple parties double-checking the work of these technological innovators to ensure we are collectively headed in the right direction. Just like it took traffic engineers, city planners, and safety experts to come up with the rules that govern how we drive on our roads today, it will take computer programmers and others in tech to aid decision makers in designing the constructs in which this new technology will operate.
Currently, the lack of laws has pushed some automakers to say that they would claim responsibility in case of accidents where technology is at fault, but this is only a stopgap. Whether or not the current model of automakers setting the rules and claiming responsibility remains, both lawmakers and car manufacturers need to spend as much time working together to define the rules that will govern the new technology as they spend on developing it. It is more than time for government to turn on the lights and shift its focus to autonomous vehicles so that regulations are clear and leave no room for ambiguity.