Collier’s Weekly: Who Gets the Ticket When Police Pull Over a Driverless Car?

An effort in Harrisburg to speed up the process of getting autonomous vehicles declared road-worthy is a mistake.


We’re not taking it easy on the robots.

When it came time to test out the driving skills of autonomous vehicles, we could’ve let the poor robots practice in one of those flat states in the middle of the country. Plop them down in rural Oklahoma! They’ll barely have to turn!

But no: We sent them straight to the difficult level: Pittsburgh, with its geometrically incomprehensible intersections and constant elevation changes. We have additional rules of the road enforced only by custom and inference; C-3PO is polite, but good luck teaching him the nuances of the Pittsburgh left.

And if those robots think they’re going to get away with approaching a tunnel at cruising speed, they’ve got another calculation coming.

The sight of driverless cars puttering around Downtown and the Strip District has been common since the city’s tech boom redefined Pittsburgh industry. In the long run, self-driving cars — when the technology is perfected — have the potential to save countless lives; when you remove human error (not to mention distracted and drunk drivers) from the road, conditions will inevitably become safer.

Until that time, though, we need to make sure that every precaution is taken on what is still developing technology. Unfortunately, some of the companies involved in developing this technology would like to limit their accountability.

A bill currently before the State Senate seeks to both increase the freedom of self-driving research and limit the liability of the companies conducting it. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Senate Bill 965 would make it legal for cars to drive without an “emergency driver” present, prevent police from citing traffic violations committed by driverless cars, put a cap on the damages companies would pay in the event of an accident, and forbid local regulation of driverless cars.

None of that, to put it simply, is good.

I’m sure companies are eager to let their little birds fly on their own, but for now, I’m just as eager to see an actual human being in the car, just in case — even if that person is under orders to not take any action unless, say, an escaped elephant is bearing down on the vehicle. And while I’m not sure who would receive a ticket in the event of a self-driving violation, I’d still like to know that the robots are under the same legal responsibility as the rest of us.

The latter two provisions are even more concerning. Senate Bill 965 would cap liability for self-driving accidents at $5 million, regardless of the damage involved. While accidents involving self-driving cars are exceedingly rare, they are not impossible; putting any limit on the financial impact of such accidents seems like nothing more than a corporate request to be let off the future hook.

And, while I understand that uniform regulations are helpful, Pittsburgh needs a say in what the laws on this testing will be. The roads in Pittsburgh bear very little resemblance to the roads in Harrisburg — or Philadelphia, or Scranton, or Erie. (Or pretty much anywhere else. Maybe the Swiss Alps.) Forbidding local jurisdictions from having a voice in these laws isn’t innovation; it’s just “you can’t make me” on a corporate level.

Grousing aside, I do look forward to the advent of this technology; I believe that, in about 20 years or so, the worst robot driver will probably be better than the best human. (We’re not all that good at driving, honestly.) And I’m glad this technology is being tested in Pittsburgh, where the challenges to our young robot friends are absurd and frequent.

Let’s just take it easy until things are good and ready, okay?

After all, I’m pretty sure the robots are gonna have a tough time with the detours. If I was a robot and ran into whatever is happening over on Fifth Avenue, I’d just reroute to Silicon Valley.

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