Future Tense

Autonomous Car Legislation Backs Google’s Vision of the Future Over Ford’s …  for Now

A self-driving car is displayed at Google HQ.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In his recent New Yorker piece, “Auto Correct,” Burkhard Bilger provides an outline of the technological history that has brought us to the precipice of autonomous cars: promises of self-driving cars by 1960 during the 1939 World’s Fair; automated highway research; and DARPA-funded unmanned off-road races. When he reviews the current state of autonomous vehicles, Bilger basically describes two camps of developers. In one are Google engineers who believe that “The Wright Brothers era is over. … [W]e’re trying to make [Google Car] as robust and reliable as a 747.” In the other are many engineers from auto manufacturers like Ford who say things like “We don’t even include it [self-driving] in our vocabulary. … Our view of the future is that the driver remains in control of the vehicle.”

But state legislators are starting to join camps, too, and they are moving toward Google’s. Since the beginning of 2012, 17 states (and the District of Columbia) have considered legislation addressing autonomous vehicles. Nevada, California, Florida and D.C. have enacted laws. The mere fact that states are debating these bills now suggests that Google’s view is winning: Autonomous cars sooner rather than later.

First, the laws in California and Florida confirm Google’s original conclusion that existing law “does not prohibit or specifically regulate the testing or operation of autonomous technology in motor vehicles.” Our laws are based on the assumption that only human beings make decisions. They don’t operate exactly the way we want them to when machines start making decisions too. For several years prior to the passage of California’s law, Google relied on legal confusion to test its prototype cars in the state.

Second, several of the laws endorse Google’s current approach to autonomous vehicles. That is, they anticipate that car owners will update their old-school vehicles by installing self-driving technology. Laws in Florida and D.C. limit auto manufacturers’ liability when an outfitted car is in an accident, assigning it instead to the party that installed the autonomous technology. (Admittedly, Google might have preferred that Toyota keep the liability for autonomous Prius crashes.)

Finally, Florida, California, and Nevada validate the full promise of autonomous cars by including provisions that anticipate autonomous cars driving without drivers in them. Each law notes that when no one is in the car, the “operator” of the vehicle will be the person who engages the autonomous technology. Although a car that is literally driverless represents a step beyond what Google actively endorses right now —a licensed driver is behind the wheel of its test cars whenever they operate on the street—that’s clearly the ultimate goal for Google. When the company’s leaders talk about the potential for autonomous cars, they compare the vehicles to “a personalized public-transportation system, picking people up and dropping them off independently, waiting at parking lots between calls.” The new self-driving car legislation is willing to look forward to Google’s happy ending, disregarding more skeptical views held by many people in the auto industry, who apparently can’t even bring themselves to say “self-driving.”

Having said that, there are signs that legislators are not wholly pleased with Google in this area. California requires that manufacturers of autonomous cars (and technology) disclose the information they collect while in use. This represents a subtle move to counter Google’s overarching strategy of being a Sham Wow for personal data. Additionally, and somewhat strangely, Nevada requires that autonomous vehicle operators have a special driver’s license endorsement in order not to drive their cars. (Similar requirements can be found in failed and pending legislation in Arizona, Hawaii, New Jersey and Oklahoma.) In some ways, this is closer to the quote from a Ford employee in The New Yorker—“the driver remains in control of the vehicle”—than to Google’s goal of getting autonomous cars on the road as soon as possible.

Ultimately, the technology will decide whether these laws are prescient or foolish. If Google engineers are right, self-driving cars will become common and safer than planes. If engineers from auto manufacturers are correct, we’re still in the Wright Brothers era.