Google’s self-driving cars have been making their way across the United States, racking up millions of miles in test driving, both simulated and actual. Planned tests in Canada have been put on the table as well, though it may take a while for those plans to come to fruition. Even with all of the test tracks and cities that the autonomous automobiles show up in, there are a great many places where they’re still not authorized to conduct road tests. One of those places is Rhode Island, but that may soon change. Rhode Island Senator Joshua Miller put a bill on the table that could legalize self-driving cars.
The new bill proposes to add some language to existing automobile laws, essentially stating that anybody with a valid driver’s license can operate an autonomous vehicle in fully autonomous mode. Although autonomous vehicles aren’t explicitly banned in most areas, this situation can lead to a lack of clarity in regards to whether operating those vehicles is legal, as well as how liability issues, such as accidents, would be handled. Should the bill pass, Rhode Island would join Florida as one of the few states in the eastern half of the nation to make a law that explicitly speaks to the legality of fully autonomous vehicles of the sort that Google has been producing and testing. As the law would stand, only allowing licensed drivers to operate them, the sort of transportation revolution that some envision would not quite be possible. The law could always change after the fact, however, to accommodate unlicensed drivers, allowing for unowned cars and personal transport for those unable to drive.
According to the bill, the person who engaged the vehicle’s autonomous functions would be considered the driver for liability purposes. If the bill passes, it could set a precedent for future dealings with liability in autonomous vehicles, which has historically been a touchy subject. The issue with this is that it may clash with possible future allowances in the laws for disabled or otherwise non-driving individuals. In the case of Google’s self-driving cars, this could mean that Google, the person in the car or the engineer that initially activated the vehicle could be held responsible. Similar legislation is on the table throughout the northeast U.S., mostly in the preliminary phases.