In terms of “realistic visions of the future,” Minority Report is one of my favorite movies. Not because I think mutants will one day be able to predict criminal action, but for all the little things. People taking drugs through their eyes, invasive technology recognizing and advertising to you without your consent and, of course jet pack police. Just kidding on that last one, what I like is the transportation system—GPS tracked, intelligent cars that can be both automated to travel to its destination and driven by the person inside.
That’s where we’re headed, and sooner rather than later we will need to figure out how to handle the new technology in our legislature.
It began back in June 2011, when Nevada passed the first driverless car legislation in American history. Of course it wasn’t intended to put driverless cars on the road, but to allow Google to continue testing its designs in the safety of the Nevada desert.
The law was originally introduced in March 2011 as bill AB511. It defines an intelligent, autonomous car “to mean a motor vehicle that uses artificial intelligence, sensors, and global positioning system coordinates to drive itself with the active intervention of a human operator.”
Now, this legislation is pretty much just there to give the Nevada Department of Transportation authority to decide how these sorts of vehicles should be dealt with in the future, and how they should be tested in the present. But don’t let that fact distract from the somewhat shocking realization that the government has been forced to create laws for real life driverless cars!
We are still a few years from having to deal with widespread, or even public, use of driverless cars, but already states like Florida are introducing legislation similar to that in Nevada.
Smart people are starting to think about the future of truly smart cars at places like the Santa Clara Law Review Symposium a few weeks ago. Here are some of the big questions:
- Liability: If cars can still, to some degree, be controlled by humans, do we give them some degree of responsibility for keeping them out of trouble? If the whole point of having a robotic vehicle is so that the driver/passenger can do other things besides drive, should we really expect them to be able to make snap decisions when it’s necessary?
- Shared road space: Automatic cars would follow the rules, would it be a cut and dry case if a human driver collided with a driverless car?
- Cultural acceptance: People don’t even believe that cars you plug in are as safe as gas guzzlers, how long will it take people to accept that cars can be perfectly controlled. What’s interesting here is that humans are almost certainly worse drivers than robotic cars will be by the time they hit the road. They will be more safe, less prone to distraction and ill-mood. A robotic car will never experience road rage. Yet, will humans, en masse, accept that the occasional robo-glitch is less frequent than human error? Will regulations be necessary to insist on drivers using intelligent technology? There’s a precedent for that sort of action from the NHTSA when their is tested technology that just makes everyone safer.
- Criminal element: How do we account for people who commit criminal acts using intelligent cars. Specifically with regard to unmanned vehicles and terrorist attacks.
All of these ideas and issues will need to be established in advance of intelligent cars taking the roads. What’s ironic is that we are always integrating our minds with technology. We store data on phones and computers rather than in our brains. We communicate instantly via text and internet instead of waiting to call friends from home or (gasp!) until we see them again. We know these behaviors are dangerous, yet many states resist state texting laws. We can’t have it both ways. Either we give in to the fact that technology can make us safer and more efficient and plan for its use, or we swear off those same technologies.
Of course we’ll never do the latter, so it’s nice to see some states and very smart people are thinking about the former.