It is the year 2023, and for the first time, a self-driving car navigating city streets strikes and kills a pedestrian. A lawsuit is sure to follow. But exactly what laws will apply? Nobody knows. Today, the law is scrambling to keep up with the technology, which is moving forward at a breakneck pace, thanks to efforts by Apple, Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Google, Honda, Mercedes, Nissan, Nvidia, Tesla, Toyota, and Volkswagen. Google’s prototype self-driving cars, with test drivers always ready to take control, are already on city streets in Mountain View, Calif., and Austin, Texas. In the second half of 2015, Tesla Motors began allowing owners (not just test drivers) to switch on its Autopilot mode.
The law now assumes that a human being is in the driver’s seat, which is why Google’s professional drivers and Tesla owners are supposed to keep their hands near the wheel and their eyes on the road. (Tesla’s cars use beeps and other warnings to make sure they do so.) That makes the vehicles street legal for now, but it doesn’t help speed the rollout of fully autonomous vehicles.