Legislation unanimously passed the Michigan Senate this week that would allow companies to test self-driving cars without a human operator inside. Proponents say requiring a researcher to be inside the test cars would put Michigan automakers at a disadvantage (Florida also eliminated the operator requirement this year) and that more expansive legislation could help position Michigan as a leader in the developing industry.
But in this developing area of industry and law, there are far more questions than answers. What if something goes wrong? If there’s an accident, who is at fault?
Changing definitions of ‘driver’
For the purposes of traffic laws, the proposed legislation would consider the automated driving system to be the driver. This conforms to guidance offered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in response to a request from Google for clarification about what federal requirements self-driving car manufacturers would have to follow. But federal regulations for driverless cars are still in development, and only eight states have enacted laws concerning driverless cars.
When driverless cars crash
The safety of self-driving cars was questioned this summer when a Tesla driver was killed by a collision with a truck while the car was in self-driving mode. While testing cars without a driver inside could help prevent such tragedies, it would also prevent a driver from taking over the wheel to avoid a collision.
And this certainly raises questions for human drivers anticipating sharing the road with driverless vehicles. What if you get into an accident with a driverless car?
Michigan is one of a dozen states with a no-fault insurance system, which for minor claims could help sidestep the question of determining fault when the “driver” is an automated driving system. Still, in severe cases, you’ll want to consult a lawyer well-versed in this area of the law.