Legal implications for driverless cars

By Dr Kieran Tranter,Griffith Law School

There are many legal issues relating to autonomous vehicles in Queensland.

Manufacturers are claiming highway autonomous cars will be available in Australia from 2017-20 and manufacturers and pundits are suggesting fully autonomous by 2025-2030.

Why the move to automation? It’s assumed a robot will be ‘safer’ than a driver, many drivers believe driving is a chore and automated driving will allow them to catch up on email, sleep and relax.

However, before the switch to fully autonomous vehicles can occur, there are five related sets of legal issues to consider.

  1. How will quasi and fully autonomous vehicles relate to Queensland road rules?

Queensland traffic rules are very particular — it defines a ‘vehicle’ as an object driven by a ‘driver’ who is defined as a human in control of the vehicle. What happens if the entity responsible for decisions about the vehicles movement is the vehicle itself?

Will it be legal to use quasi-autonomous vehicles on Qld roads from 2017-20? Yes, provided driver remains in ‘control of the vehicle’ ie, in driver seat and is supervising. But:

  • Who gets the ticket in the queuing through the intersection issue? A good point, as technically the ‘driver’ didn’t make the decision so shouldn’t get the ticket. In the US, several states have amended their road rules to ‘deem’ the human driver in this circumstance liable for decisions by the robot
  • I’m on the M1 in highway mode and I start doing emails on my mobile – will I get a ticket? Most likely — at the moment the rules are very strict holding a mobile phone while in the driver’s seat is a breach. Nevada in the US has changed the law exempting drivers in this situation.
  • I’m on the M1 in highway mode and I start doing emails on my iPad (not a mobile phone) — will I get a ticket? This is ambiguous. A direct rule applies to mobile phones, but currently this is dealt with as distraction from driving as the car is driving itself. Arguably the human is not distracted and therefore can legally to emails on an iPad.
  1. How does the drink and drug driving provision apply?

Currently very broad, and there have been successful prosecutions for people in vehicles intoxicated but not sitting in driver seat. For a quasi-autonomous vehicle I think social expectation would strongly be that the current laws apply. For fully autonomous, arguably no different to having a taxi drive an intoxicated person — as the technology gets more common and competent we’ll probably start having a more serious discussion about this.

  1. Who is liable if something goes wrong?

This is a huge issue and I’m uncertain as to the solution.

  • Would a driver be criminally liable for dangerous operation of a motor vehicle if their autonomous vehicle goes wrong? Probably not if did not knowingly commence the journey in malfunctioning vehicle.
  • Who would be civilly liable? Driver under the current insurance arrangement? But if the driver is not at fault these would not necessarily apply. Manufacturer under consumer law? In the US there is considerable talk about manufacturer liability for the failure of quasi autonomous vehicles. We are seeing current vehicles that require prior to starting a pressing of a button saying that the driver assumes liability if they use the advance safety features of a vehicle such as auto braking. This can be seen as a first attempt by manufacturers to limit their liability.
  1. Are there adequate protections from malcontents and terrorists hacking vehicles?

We really don’t know. The manufacturers are investing significantly in encryption and the robust security of computer components within vehicles but all systems can be hacked. What we do know is the general issue with cybercrime of the difficulties of identification and the successful prosecution of hackers. Criminal law works as a way of changing behaviour through deterrence; and the problem with cybercrime is low prosecution rates seemingly means little deterrence.

  1. These vehicles will be sending and receiving details regarding travelling both to the infrastructure and to other vehicles. How does this relate to the protection of privacy in Australia?

Again we don’t really know as the technology of the ‘connected’ car is developing rapidly — but there will need to be nationally agreed standards that are compliant with privacy law that govern what data gets recorded and who can access that data and in what circumstances.

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