If a Driverless Car Gets a Ticket, Who Pays?

Friday, May 23, 2014
California Gov. Jerry Brown checks out Google's driverless car (photo: Eric Risberg, AP)

The age of robot-driven cars is here, thanks to Google. These self-driving vehicles have logged thousands of miles on California’s Bay Area roadways, ushering their human passengers (a person is always in the driver’s seat, per the law) to their destinations.


So far, Google’s autonomous cars have a perfect law-abiding record: Not one of them has been issued a traffic citation…yet.


But it seems like just a matter of time, or robotic hiccup, before one of the vehicles does something to get pulled over and issued a ticket.


When that day comes, who’s going to pay the fine? Google? The person behind the wheel, who has no control over the car?


Which leads to the question of whether a vehicle “operator,” as referenced in the legal code, may be either a human being or a corporation (which brings to mind a certain U.S. Supreme Court ruling that infamously equated corporations with people).


“A person, if it is defined as a human person and not a corporation, that's what we're really wondering about,” Ron Medford, safety director for Google's self-driving car program, and a former deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,  said at a recent meeting at the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). “Even in this definition... does a person mean a human individual or can it mean something more?”


The response from DMV assistant chief counsel Brian Soublet: “Well, right, if you look at the common definitions that are in the vehicle code, a person includes a corporation and a partnership and other forms of entities. So when we think of a vehicle being operated, is it that inclusive? Is the operator that person, that could be a corporation?”


“Perhaps the ticket should go to the programmer who wrote the algorithm that made the mistake?” The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal supposed, tongue in cheek.


Sergeant Saul Jaeger, press information officer at the Mountain View Police Department, told Madrigal in an email: “Right now the California Vehicle Code reads that the person seated in the driver’s seat is responsible for the movement of the vehicle.”


But that doesn’t really answer the question in the case of self-driving cars.


As far as Google is concerned, it will pay for any tickets stemming from its special cars running afoul with the law.


“What we’ve been saying to the folks in the DMV, even in public session, for unmanned vehicles, we think the ticket should go to the company. Because the decisions are not being made by the individual,” Medford told The Atlantic.


The California Legislature addressed the matter in Senate Bill 1298, which requires the state DMV to adopt regulations for the testing and use of autonomous vehicles on public roads. It adopted said rules on May 20. They will go into effect on September 16, 2014.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

Google's Self-Driving Cars Have Never Gotten a Ticket (by Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic)

California Approves Test of Self-Driving Cars on Public Roads (by Megan Geuss, Ars Technica)

How Does a Traffic Cop Ticket a Driverless Car? (by Bryant Walker Smith, New Scientist)


Chuck 10 years ago
I can't wait for the first time a cop gets frisky with his ticket book with a Google Car. With the total information on the scene recorded by the car, the lying cop will be humiliated in court.
datafreak 10 years ago
If my car speedometer is off and I get a ticket I can't currently blame the manufacturer or my mechanic. Surely these cars have a feature that allow the autopilot to be turned off due to malfunction. if the passenger / pilot doesn't pay attention then they would be at fault.
r george 10 years ago
That's simple. The person in the driver's seat gets the ticket. They made the decision to use the software to pilot the car, and therefor have responsibility for the vehicle.
JoJoMoMo 10 years ago
This is a non-issue. Currently with traffic light enforcement, it simply goes to the whomever the car is registered to. So if you let someone use your car and they run a red light at an intersection with a camera, you will be the one getting the ticket. Not sure why this is even news
EJ Hannan 10 years ago
I do not understand this debate. How is a driverless car different than auto pilot on an aircraft. The pilot and navigator are still ultimately responsible for the lives both on board and on the ground should something happen to that aircraft. Why is there such a debate over who is responsible in the driverless car, is it not still the driver/owner's responsibility?
Rich 10 years ago
Driverless cars are programmed to operate within the vehicle code. No tickets unless the passenger overides the 'auto drive' and breaks the law, gets ticket.
Michael Harris 10 years ago
Let's say the speed limit is 55. Does the car drive 65, 60, 55, 54, or 50? And who decides?
Sam Hill 10 years ago
Most traffic citations are just revenue boosters anyway, but this does lead to an interesting unintended consequence similar to mandating high milage gasoline regulations did. That caused a critical shortage of funds for state governments. So will states make programers set a violation say in every10,000 miles driven, and then what happens if that violation causes a fatal accident. Also, how about dui's the real cash cow for lawyers? Sounds like the worm can has already been kicked over.
Cory 10 years ago
I think the real point is that the information about the violation gets back to the system designers (like a debug) so that they can evaluate and resolve the issue early and before it causes more dangerous situations.
Haha101 10 years ago
Ready for robots and Star Trek years to come? past tv shows becoming real..

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