How Autonomous Vehicles Will Come to the Road: Rule of Law

The State of California has just released proposed regulations for autonomous vehicles, aka self-driving cars. Enthusiasts are critical. Whatever people think about the prospect of riding down the road as if seated in a living room, this development is important as a signal of the continuing vitality of law.

Every day, another angry blogger celebrates the end of the legal profession. There is no doubt that it is not what it once was, and it likely never will be again. But anxiety about the amount of money to be made in the practice of law should not become disrespect for the value of the rule of law. There is all the more need in our era of constant change for principles to be adopted democratically, enforced justly, and adapted to the world around us.

The possibility of robot cars, a science fiction dream since science fiction dreams have been dreamt, is more or less a technological reality. Google has exciting experiments, much publicized. Volvo, the manufacturer that originated the three-point seat belt, is selling a new model, the XC90, that comes close to piloting itself safely. The prototypes are not perfect; then again, the forthcoming Acura NSX supercar, which still relies on a driver, burned to the ground during racetrack testing.

Yet it is not enough to have the engineering capability to produce an autonomous vehicle. Society requires rules of conduct, means of resolving disputes, provisions for accidents, and a system of insurance. There may be problems of right-of-way (will a luxury model be given priority) and surveillance (if the police can pull over a suspect by overriding controls).

Traffic is inherently social. A hermit cannot create traffic.

Most modern roads are public goods. They are shared by all of us, even if for a fee. Hardly anybody would disagree that we together have to decide on protocols for which side of the road to drive on; it cannot be a free for all -- places in the world without the concept of staying in your lane lack a pre-requisite for maintaining order. Our climate will not last without emissions controls.

Our progress is enabled by rule of law. Self-driving cars are only one example. All of the innovation that consumers expect in our era depends on protection of intellectual property to invent products and functioning markets to attract investment. In so many fields, we have policy challenges that could not even have been conceived of a generation ago. The internet has created concerns about privacy and the prevalence of pornography. Recreational drones threaten commercial airspace and even raise military risks. Virtual currency tests the finance system.

The law in this area probably will proceed as follows. There will be a period of uncertainty, which we are in, as governmental bodies enact norms, then reconcile differing standards. As these automobiles, finally living up to the name, come online, there may be a surge in courtroom drama: unless there is a prohibition on litigation (which would be unwise), the first few accidents will bring suits.

Then matters will settle down. Elevators transitioned from manual operation generations ago. There is not now much elevator litigation. They are safe. Suits are not called for.

Autonomous vehicles will arrive only after the technology is robust and the rule of law is ready. Computer code will stand with legal code. In the future, they may even blend together. The prospect is as plausible as self-driving cars, and it is as exhilarating an idea as any idea can be.