What will we be doing 50 years from now? Along with the new iPhone L (how long before Apple switches to Roman numerals?), will we also be waiting for the release of the latest DriveOS software? Lamenting the fact that Grandpa won’t come to terms with swapping his old Ford 5 for a Ford 10? Perhaps insurance companies will finally be willing to negotiate premiums because, hey, we’re not the ones driving anymore.
Get ready: autonomous vehicles (AVs) – self driving cars – are on the verge of breaking through in a big way, and it’s with a cheery note of optimism that we peer into our crystal ball for a glimpse into the future—the not so distant future, depending on who you’re asking. The Obama Administration recently offered up close to $4 billion over the next decade to fast-track projects related to the safety of AVs, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has decided that artificial intelligence (AI) constitutes “a driving entity,” meaning drivers will no longer need to be living and breathing in order to operate a vehicle.
To reference an old cliché: It’s not a matter of “if” AVs become part of mainstream consumerism, but “when.” So when it does happen, what will our roads and our world look like? There are a lot of technological, infrastructural, and legal decisions to be made, and we’re taking educated guesses at what could happen.
Insurance makes a move
AV advocates have long preached the benefits of eliminating human error altogether, reducing the number of auto crashes by significant margins. For insurers and drivers, that may mean a national, comprehensive no-fault regime is on the horizon. An AV study by the RAND Corporation suggests that the concept behind no-fault auto insurance laws might become an appealing alternative to tort-based laws for drivers and AV manufacturers. In other words: your own insurance company, would cover your damages in the event of an crash, regardless of who caused the accident. Tort-based law, by contrast, is based on principles seeking monetary compensation from the at-fault party’s insurance company.
What ultimately happens depends largely on which side makes the first move, and likely, who can get the most public support: the insurance industry, the technology and manufacturing industry, or legislators. All have varying interests in the future of AVs. Both the traditional tort model and no-fault have pros and cons in a world dominated by AVs.
The insurance industry depends on receiving premiums and thrives on holding onto as much money as possible, while paying out as little as possible in claims. National no-fault means an insurer of a driver is responsible whereas tort-based systems allow wiggle room for insurers and injured parties to go after the at-fault party. The RAND Corporation paper depicts a world with comprehensive no-fault and limited liability – up to and including immunity – for manufacturers who’s AVs are involved in a crash..
Technology and manufacturing companies want to be efficient and at the forefront of new, exciting technology like AVs. They should also want to manufacture safe AVs, but for a device as complex and dynamic as a self driving car, companies need to be invested in their products, set on frequent updates and advancements.
Of course, if AVs are as safe as anticipated, auto crashes, and thus injuries caused by crashes, will decrease. The result: less no-fault insurance claims, which insurers may be willing to support. But manufacturers and software developers are still liable in some cases – if the software or hardware of an AV is defective – so they’ll want something to protect them, too. They’ll turn to legislators, demanding immunity or other legal protections, so, they often claim, they can continue to innovate without fear of a massive lawsuit bankrupting them. But with a blanket immunity, the incentive to create, update, and take responsibility for AVs is arguably diminished.
As the sides play out, expect an expensive marketing campaign from insurers, who still rely on high premium-paying customers to make money. “Are you in good hands?” may become a much more literal slogan, for example.
Digital corruption sparks new driving policies
Several months ago, WIRED magazine decided to conduct an experiment with two hackers who were able to infiltrate the computer console of a Chrysler-manufactured Jeep. The trial ultimately forced one driver into a ditch on the side of the road. Though the stunt was planned, it caught the attention of lawmakers who were none-too-pleased with the prospect of real-life remote-control cars. Two Senators in particular set out to look closely at the way hacking presented challenges in a fully autonomous driving world.
That brings into question matters of digital corruption policies and the establishment of security practices to protect drivers from themselves (accidentally installing malware, for example), as well as laws to deter and punish outside forces like hackers. Tailoring these laws to a world in which AVs are prominent would be beneficial in the long run. Expect Congress to take a much more detailed look in the coming years as AVs become more prominent
The legal field starts retrofitting old laws to fit new ones
The days of Napster and P2P file sharing sent some copyright lawyers into frenzy. Attorneys were grappling with a new technological capability—mass downloads—and relying on outdated precedents to argue infringement. So much was happening in such a short time that it became easy to misunderstand what was really going on. As file sharing and copyright laws progressed, a new set of case law began to afford the technology its own body of law, giving lawyers a means by which to prosecute effectively. We may soon see the same thing happen when it comes to the rules of the road for AV.
We have to decide, as a community, how all the moving parts of the AV puzzle will fit together. Who will make the rules, and how will those rules be enforced? At this point, there may be things we don’t know that need changing in order to have AV operating seamlessly. Ford, for example, is working to create an on-demand ride service—like Uber—with AVs. Who would’ve conceived of such an idea just five short years ago and what would the consequences be, both legally and economically? The future is coming into full view. The bigger question is: can we keep pace?