No ticketing for autonomous vehicles?

April 19, 2017
Rick Nelson,
Executive Editor

My editorial in the February 2013 issue is titled “Ticketing autonomous vehicles.” A high-school student researching self-driving cars came across that and asked for an update, and I thought I’d share some of the latest news.

At the time of my earlier editorial, Nevada, California, and Florida had enacted some legislation regarding autonomous vehicles, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2016, 20 states introduced legislation relevant to autonomous vehicles, and now Alabama, California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles while governors in Arizona and Massachusetts have issued executive orders related to the topic. Most recently, Michigan has allowed automakers to operate an autonomous vehicle without a human onboard.

As for ticketing, some experts think it may go away altogether. As quoted in a “Justice Lab” column at The Marshall Project, Joseph A. Schafer, the criminal justice department head at Southern Illinois University, says, “I think you would see the end of traffic stops. It radically changes police-public encounters.” He thinks ticketing occupants of self-driving cars would be futile.

Schafer estimates that traffic stops account for 50% of police interaction with civilians. That poses the question of how cities and towns will respond. They will lose much of the revenue they now get from traffic fines. Will they lay off half their police force?
Also, police making traffic stops are visible. Would a less visible, reduced police force result in an increase in property crime or violent crime?

Then there is the “pretext stop,” in which police use a minor motor-vehicle infraction (broken tail light, for instance) to pull over a driver when they actually want to look for drugs, for example. The “Justice Lab” column quotes Bernard Levin, a retired professor of psychology at Blue Ridge Community College, as calling the pretext stop one of the most valuable tools police have. For an autonomous vehicle programmed to always stay within the speed limit and to monitor when its lights burn out, the “pretext” disappears.

Then there are issues related to the responsibilities of autonomous vehicle occupants. If you are texting or using a cellphone in a passenger seat of an autonomously operating vehicle, will you bear any responsibility if it gets into an accident? Nevada says no.

Ticketing will be just part of the regulatory and legal issues surrounding autonomous vehicles. A recent article in The Economist discusses insurance, for example. The author states that 90% of accidents today are due to human error and that with autonomous vehicles accidents could drop by four-fifths. The article cites figures from accounting firm KPMG that the motor-vehicle insurance market could drop 60% by 2040.

Many autonomous vehicle owners will be owned by companies like Uber, who will self-insure or purchase fleet insurance. But suppose in 2040 you own a conventional car that you like to drive yourself. Will insurance companies be willing to sell you an affordable policy that covers what they might judge to be your risky behavior?

Clearly, there are many issues to resolve in the coming years—quite apart from the technical challenges that remain.

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