California has become a widespread testing ground for autonomous vehicles, with San Francisco serving as a hub for public trials. However, a legal loophole in current legislation prevents law enforcement from punishing traffic offences committed by driverless cars operating in autonomous mode.
The state's law enforcement lacks the necessary tools to address violations by autonomous vehicles, as traffic tickets can only be issued if there is a human driver present in the car. An internal memo from San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott, obtained by NBC Bay Area, highlights that “no citation for a moving violation can be issued if the [autonomous vehicle] is being operated in a driverless mode.” Consequently, while autonomous vehicles may receive parking tickets, they are immune to penalties for driving violations.
The situation has raised concerns about the safety of autonomous vehicles, as some have been observed running red lights, obstructing emergency services, or navigating through roadworks. Manufacturers argue that continuous testing is crucial to improving the technology and enhancing safety.
Irina Raicu, Director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, commented, “I think all of us are still struggling to understand whether [driverless cars] really are safer than human drivers and in what ways they might not be.” She added, “It seems like while they make fewer of the kind of mistakes that we see from human drivers, they make interesting new kinds of mistakes.”
The absence of a level playing field and fairness in enforcement has sparked discussions about the challenges of integrating driverless cars into existing legal frameworks. Michael Stephenson, Founder and Senior Attorney of Bay Area Bicycle Law, noted, “We're perhaps trying to shove a square peg into a round hole. We are very much in the Wild West when it comes to driverless cars.”
In contrast, other states like Texas, where Tesla is now based, consider the owner of a driverless car as its operator, allowing for charges regardless of physical presence in the vehicle. Arizona has also established a legal framework to address autonomous vehicles, allowing for traffic citations or penalties if the vehicle fails to comply with traffic laws.