Reasonable Doubt: The road to regulation for self-driving vehicles

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Being able to zip around town in a vehicle you don’t have to drive will be possible sooner than you may think.

      Or will it?

      Take a moment to imagine what it would be like to be able to input your destination, sit back with a coffee in hand, and read the newspaper or surf the Net on your phone or tablet as you are shuttled to work in the morning.

      Your commute could be transformed into valuable free time to do things like set priorities for the day, answer emails, pay bills online, or attend video conferences via networking software, all from the comfort of your vehicle.

      Even more beneficial, imagine sophisticated self-driving vehicles with top-notch safety, reducing injury or death caused by human errors, inattention, impaired driving, or the dangerous operation of motor vehicles.

      Such sophisticated vehicles could ensure you never again have to pay a speeding ticket or a fine for other driving infractions, get into a fender bender, or have to worry about how you are going to get home after having a few drinks.

      Safer driving and fewer accidents would significantly reduce insurance rates. For now, however, we are a long way from such advantages.

      Google anticipates having its autonomous vehicles available to the public by 2020. In the meantime, Google and other car manufacturers like Tesla, Nissan, Bosch, and Mercedes-Benz, are testing their autonomous vehicles on California public roadways as part of California’s Department of Motor Vehicle’s two-phase autonomous vehicles regulation: phase one is testing, and phase two is deployment.

      As a result, California’s DMV will be leading the way on how these self-driving, or what they are calling autonomous, vehicles will be integrated into existing regulatory, criminal, and insurance regimes.

      According to the DMV’s Summary of Draft Autonomous Vehicles Deployment Regulations, self-driving vehicles will only be available to the public on a leased basis, and only for an initial period of three years. During this initial period, autonomous vehicle manufacturers will be required to report monthly on their vehicles’ performance, safety, and usage.

      Other restrictions on the public’s use of autonomous vehicles will include the necessity for the presence of a licensed driver with the specified autonomous-vehicle-operator certificate. The certificate will only be available through the DMV, and its purpose is to ensure that the driver is able to monitor and operate the autonomous vehicle in situations where the driver must take over immediate control.

      Vehicle manufacturers will be required to create consumer education plans and behind-the-wheel training programs for their autonomous vehicle models.

      The need for the requirement that operators have special training becomes clear when you review the reports from Google’s recent testing. Its results show that the self-driving vehicles had to be “disengaged” and taken over by human drivers a total of 341 times in 424,331 miles (approximately 682,895 kilometres) of driving, which is equivalent to many year’s worth of driving—approximately 27 years for an average annual distance of 25,000 kilometres.

      Google reported that 272 of the 341 disengagements were the result of the vehicles detecting some sort of fault with the technology and signalled the driver to take over. On the other hand, 69 of the disengagements were initiated by the drivers because of concerns about other drivers or decisions related to the driver’s comfort level.

      Of those 69 disengagements, only 13 would have lead to relatively minor collisions, with three being the fault of other drivers and 10 being the result of the vehicle’s technology.

      In addition to the licensed-driver stipulations, the DMV is also requiring privacy and cyber-security measures. The privacy requirements compel manufacturers to provide a written disclosure statement to autonomous vehicle operators indicating what information will be collected. It will require written authorization from the operators before obtaining that information.

      Manufacturers will also be required to equip the vehicles with industry best self-diagnostic capabilities to ensure the vehicle can detect, respond, and alert the operator to cyber-attacks or other unauthorized intrusions of the vehicle’s technology, allowing the operator to override the autonomous technology in order to maintain control of its operation.

      For the time being, drivers will have to remain fairly attentive to how their autonomous vehicle is operating, being able to disengage and take over immediate control, and they will be held responsible for all traffic violations that occur during their vehicles’ operation.


      Sherry Baxter practices criminal and civil law on Vancouver Island as well as provides legal research and litigation services. Reasonable Doubt appears on on Fridays. You can send your questions for the column to its writers at

      A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.