Vinita Banthia, MJLST Articles Editor
In its latest technology anticipations, society eagerly awaits a functional autonomous car. However, despite the current hype, whether or not these cars will be ultimately successful remains a question. While autonomous cars promise to deliver improved safety standards, lower environmental impacts, and greater efficiency, their market success will depend on how practical the first generation of autonomous vehicles are, and how fast they are adopted by a significantly large portion of the population. Because their usability and practicality depends inherently on how many people are using them, it will be important for companies to time their first release for when they are sufficiently developed and can infiltrate the market quickly. Dorothy J. Glancy provides a detailed account of the legal questions surrounding autonomous cars in Autonomous and Automated and Connected Cars Oh My! First Generation Autonomous Cars in the Legal Ecosystem. This blog post responds to Glancy’s article and suggests additional safety and regulation concerns that Glancy’s article does not explicitly discuss. Finally, this post proposes certain characteristics which must be true of the first generation of autonomous vehicles if autonomous vehicles are to catch-on.
Glancy thoroughly covers the expected benefits of autonomous cars. Autonomous cars will allow persons who are not otherwise able to drive, such as visually impaired people, and the elderly, to get around conveniently. All riders will be able to save time by doing other activities such as reading or browsing the internet during their commute. And in the long run, autonomous vehicles will allow roads and parking lots to be smaller and more compact because of the cars’ more precise maneuvering abilities. Once enough autonomous vehicles are on the road, they will be able to travel faster than traditional cars and better detect and react to dangers in their surroundings. This will decidedly lead to fewer crashes.
On the contrary, several other features may discourage the use of autonomous vehicles. First, because of the mapping systems, the cars will likely be restricted to one geographic region. Second, they might be programmed to save the most number of people during a car crash, even if that means killing the occupant. Therefore, many prospective buyers may not buy a car that is programmed to kill him or her in the event of an inevitable crash. In addition, initial autonomous cars may not be as fast as imagined, depending on whether they can detect faster moving lanes, frequently change lanes, and adapt to changing speed limits. Until there are significant numbers of autonomous cars on roads, they may not be able to drive on longer, crowded roads such as highways, because vehicles will need to interact with each other in order to avoid crashes. Some argue that other car-service provides will suffer as taxis, Ubers, busses, and trails become less relevant. However, this change will be gradual because people will long continue to rely on these services as cheap alternatives to car-ownership.
When these cars are available, in order to promote autonomous cars to enter the market rapidly, manufacturers should make the cars most attractive to potential buyers, instead of making them good for society as a whole. For example, instead of programming the car to injure its own occupants, it should be programmed to protect its occupants. This will encourage sales of autonomous cars, reducing the number of car crashes in the long run.
Glancy also states that the first generation of autonomous vehicles will be governed by the same state laws that apply for conventional vehicles, and will not have additional rules of their own. However, this is unlikely to be true, and specific state and possibly even federal laws will most likely affect autonomous vehicles before they may be driven on public roads and sold to private individuals. Because autonomous cars will co-exist with traditional vehicles, many of these laws will address the interaction between autonomous and conventional cars, such as overtaking, changing lanes, and respecting lane restrictions.
In the end, the success of autonomous cars depends widely on how practical the first fleet is, how many people buy into the idea and how fast, as well as the car’s cost. If they are successful, there will be legal and non-legal benefits and consequences, which will only be fully realized after a few decades of operation of the cars.