California has been happy to tweak the rules to get more self-driving cars on the road, but it still has its limits. The state's DMV has eliminated a planned rule (suggested by GM) that would have let companies avoid liability for an autonomous vehicle crash if the machine hadn't been maintained to manufacturer specs. In other words, they could have been let off the hook if your car's sensors were muddy, even if an accident was really due to bad code.
More and more self-driving vehicles are making their debut, raising the question of who should be held accountable if, or perhaps when, they cause accidents. Following American and German automakers Tesla Motors Inc. and Mercedes-Benz, Nissan Motor Co. released a minivan model with self-driving functions in the Serena family in August at a time when the government and automakers in Japan are looking to have autonomous vehicles in regular use by 2020. In Japan, autonomous vehicles are now sold with the understanding that drivers are responsible for maintaining control of their vehicles. Drivers are required to stay behind the steering wheel even when self-driving functions are in operation, and they are held accountable for accidents. The autonomous Serena model is designed for expressway use in single-lane traffic.
Germany's lower parliamentary house, the Bundestag, has approved the regular use of self-driving vehicles and features in the country, according to reports. As the country relies on a bicameral parliament, though, the upper house known as the Bundesrat will apparently also have to approve the legislation, and the executive branch will have to as well, before the law can be changed. The coalition forces that are backing the legalization of self-driving vehicles -- composed of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Christian Democratic Union (CSU) -- are reportedly confident that approval will be forthcoming. The law (as quoted in translation by Teslarati) reads: "During vehicle driving, the driver may turn away from traffic and vehicle control by means of highly automated or fully automated driving function … (but must) immediately (assume control) if he recognizes that the conditions for the intended use of the highly or fully automated driving functions no longer exist … even if he does not control the vehicle in the context of the intended use of this function." So, people will seemingly be responsible for whatever the self-driving vehicle/tech providers are unwilling to explicitly take responsibility for.
Google self-driving cars are shown outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., in May 2014. Google self-driving cars are shown outside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., in May 2014. An accident last month in Tempe, Ariz., involving a self-driving Uber car highlighted some novel new issues regarding fault and liability that experts say will come up more often as autonomous vehicles hit the road. And that will having an increasing impact on an insurance industry that so far has no road map for how to deal with the new technologies. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett, whose company, Berkshire Hathaway, owns the insurance giant Geico, told CNBC in a February interview: "If the day comes when a significant portion of the cars on the road are autonomous, it will hurt Geico's business very significantly."