E-Alert Case Updates
Senate Committee Kills Bill to Establish Task Force to Study Issues Related to Self-Driving Vehicles; House Counterpart Bill Appears Unlikely to Pass
SB 126; HB 8 (2016 Regular Session)
/report-0116.pdf. Since the Project’s inception, Google’s vehicles have been involved in less than twenty (20) total accidents, the vast majority of which involved human drivers rear-ending the self-driving vehicles. Now, companies such as Apple and Tesla have announced plans to launch their own self-driving vehicle projects, with Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk predicting that Tesla will produce fully autonomous cars that can drive on any road in any condition within five (5) years. See http://fortune.com/2015/12/21/elon-musk-interview/. If these companies are to be believed – and there is little indication that they should not be – self-driving cars may become a common sight on roads around the country in the near future.
Plainly, the widespread presence of autonomous vehicles on public roads would present a myriad of legal issues which legislatures and courts will need to address. As commentators have recently noted, for example, it is sometimes prudent to “break the law” in a reasonable manner by swerving to avoid an accident, or by speeding to pass a dangerous driver. See http://www.law360.com/articles/753700/man-vs-machine-the-new-era-of-self-driven-cars. But a self-driving car may not be able to make such judgment calls or discern when a reasonable violation of the law is necessary to avoid a bigger accident. Assuming no allowance is made by the self-driving car, an accident may occur, and the question becomes whether the manufacturer of the self-driving vehicle or the passive driver is at fault. This is not unlike accidents that occur while following a Garmin or other navigational tool, although in such instances the user typically waives liability at the opening screen of the device before any coordinates are plugged into the navigation. It has also been pointed out by some that self-driven vehicles may need to be programmed to endanger the lives of the occupants of the vehicle to spare the greater loss of life that would occur if, for example, the vehicle were to crash into a crowd of people. See https://www.technologyreview.com/s/542626/why-self-driving-cars-must-be-programmed-to-kill/. If the vehicle makes the decision to kill its occupants, do the occupants’ beneficiaries have a cause of action against the manufacturer? If the vehicle instead kills the crowd of people, can their beneficiaries argue that the vehicle was designeddefectively?
Despite the seemingly imminent arrival of such questions, however, to date only six states and the District of Columbia have passed any form of legislation addressing self-driving vehicles. Among those jurisdictions, little has been resolved – most jurisdictions have stated little more than that autonomous vehicles must have a human present in the vehicle to take control in the event of an emergency. Nevertheless, most of these jurisdictions have authorized some governmental body within their state to study and report on the issues that self-driving vehicles are likely to present when they become more common.
Anticipating the impact that issues relating to self-driving vehicles may have in Maryland, Delegate Pamela Beidle and Senator Andrew A. Serafini recently introduced identical Bills in the Maryland State House of Delegates and Senate, respectively. The Bills propose to establish a task force to research the issues that self-driving vehicles are likely to create and present recommendations to the General Assembly as to how to address those issues by 2018. In particular, the Bills direct the task force to: (1) “[d]etermine the most effective and appropriate best practices for governing self-driving vehicles”; (2) “[r]eview state law governing the rules of the road . . . to determine if that area of state law would need to be updated to accommodate self-driving vehicles”; and (3) make recommendations regarding how to address new training necessary for drivers to account for the presence of self-driving vehicles, liability issues stemming from accidents involving self-driving vehicles, and any other issue that may be relevant to self-driving vehicles in Maryland. The Bills’ fiscal summaries indicate that the task force’s work would cost the State approximately $100,000. http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2016RS/fnotes/bil_0006/sb0126.pdf.
On February 4, 2016, the Maryland State Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee issued an unfavorable report for the Senate version of the Bill, effectively killing the Bill for this legislative session. http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2016RS/votes_comm/sb0126_jpr.pdf. This marked the second time in less than a year that the Judicial Proceedings Committee issued an unfavorable report for this Bill. On March 25, 2015, the Committee killed a nearly identical Bill introduced by Senator Serafini during the 2015 Legislative Session. http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2015RS/votes_comm/sb0778_jpr.pdf. Given the Senate’s refusal of this Bill, it seems unlikely that its House counterpart will ultimately be successful.
These events are not the first times that the General Assembly has refused Bills related to self-driving vehicles. In 2014, the House Environmental Matters Committee rejected yet another nearly identical version of the Bills described above. http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2014RS/votes_comm/hb0538_env.pdf. During that same legislative session, the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee also rejected a Bill that would have permitted self-driving vehicles on Maryland roads only for testing purposes and subject to certain specific requirements. See http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2014RS/bills/sb/sb0773f.pdf; http://mgaleg.maryland.gov/2014RS/votes_comm/sb0773_jpr.pdf.
In rejecting this legislation, Maryland joined no less than fourteen (14) other states that have either rejected or failed to act on legislation addressing issues attendant to self-driving cars within the past year. See http://www.ncsl.org/research/transportation/autonomous-vehicles-legislation.aspx. Nevertheless, the apparently inexorable progress of the technology industry will be unaffected by the continued refusal of legislative bodies to act. Whether and when these legislatures do act will have serious implications on the legal industry’s preparedness to address the issues that self-driving cars will likely present.
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