Why Driverless Cars Don't Require a Bunch of New Laws

A Lexus SL 600 Integrated Safety driverless research vehicle is seen on display at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show.

A Lexus SL 600 Integrated Safety driverless research vehicle is seen on display at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show. Julie Jacobson/AP

A new report says the right regulatory framework may be closer than it appears.

Anyone who’s encountered the debate about driverless cars has probably heard that it’s legal questions as much as technology that’s keeping the autonomous vehicles from broad production.

Specifically, if my car hits your car but neither of us is driving, then who’s to blame?

A new report from the Brookings Institution argues this concern is likely overblown and that “subject to a few narrow exceptions, existing tort and contract law frameworks are generally very well equipped to address these questions.”

The paper, written by Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow John Villasenor, an engineering and public policy professor at UCLA, notes that auto companies have already started equipping cars with a slate of semi-autonomous features, such as stability controls that choose which wheels to brake when the road’s slippery. These autonomous features “have saved thousands of lives,” he writes. “And, they have done so without confronting the courts with insurmountable questions regarding liability,” he adds.

U.S. courts racked up a strong record of resolving product liability questions without hampering innovation throughout the 20th century, Vellasenor argues, and there’s no reason to believe they’ll drop the ball when it comes to driverless cars. As a result, he argues, the federal government and state governments should not try to address all driverless car liability questions in advance of production, but should wait to address most questions more sensibly once there’s a record of actual legal cases.

The federal government should not try to address general liability issues related to driverless cars, he argues, but should leave those questions to the states, which typically handled liability questions for traditional cars. The feds, however, should manage liability regulations as they affect driverless commercial vehicles, he says.

“Products liability law offers a time-tested framework that has proven to be adaptive to technology-driven liability issues in many other contexts,” he writes. “There is good reason to be optimistic that it will be equally capable of doing so when applied to autonomous vehicles.”