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Self-Driving Cars and the Law: What You Need to Know

When you hear ‘self-driving car,’ do you picture yourself with your feet up on the dash, munching on chips and scrolling through TikTok while your sweet, sweet car takes you out for a drive? Well, unfortunately, we aren’t quite there yet. But as the technology goes from zero to 100 (without so much as a foot on the gas), the legal complexities that come with self-driving cars are going to be bonkers. Jump in and buckle up — here’s how a law degree with the right specializations could put you on the fast track to a high-speed career, tackling the growing legal issues around this technology. 

What are self-driving cars?

The term ‘self-driving car’ can be a little misleading. It makes you think of a car that is entirely self-sufficient and requires zero intervention from the driver. In actuality, there’s a broad spectrum of self-driving cars. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has identified six levels of automation, starting with 0 (where humans do everything) to 5 (where the car acts as a virtual chauffeur and does everything — akin to the fantasy above). 

For now ‘self-driving car,’ as a general term, refers to a car that uses a combination of cameras, sensors, radar, and artificial intelligence to travel between locations without a person operating it. 

How are self-driving cars evolving?

We’re still a long way from seeing many vehicles on our streets that can safely navigate unfamiliar roads without human intervention. Not only is it a regulatory and legal minefield (more on this below), but it’s also just incredibly hard to build this kind of artificial intelligence. 

Developers need to use mountains and mountains of data from image recognition systems, as well as neural networks and machine learning, to build these autonomous driving systems. Think about how many different objects there are on the roads we drive: traffic lights and mechanisms, different types of cars, trees and terrains, pedestrians …  That’s a lot of data! The more the system drives and gathers data, the more it can feed into its machine learning algorithms. 

Imagine what the world could look like if self-driving cars became the norm. You could get people to the hospital faster. You could find ways to effectively carpool and reduce CO2 emissions. You could work and live more efficiently, multitasking while you ride in the car. But then there are the ethical questions. What about the jobs lost? Taxi drivers, bus drivers, heck – even your poor pizza delivery guy – what happens to them? Even more complicated – can an artificial intelligence system answer the moral questions that we might face on the road (hopefully never, but who knows)? What if your brakes suddenly give way and you’re left with the horrible choice of deciding between turning left and potentially hitting a group of people vs turning right and potentially hitting a small child. Those kinds of dilemmas are tricky enough for humans to navigate, so how can we be certain that artificial intelligence would be able to cope?

In spite of all these questions, some of the biggest companies in the world, like Google, Audi, BMW, Ford, General Motors, Tesla, and more, are hot on the heels of self-driving car technology. But this is opening up a complex web of legal questions and here are just a few to consider. 

1. Intellectual Property

Did you hear the story about the former Google engineer who was sentenced to prison for stealing Google’s trade secrets before joining Uber’s effort to build robotic vehicles? It’s quite the cautionary tale. As companies invest millions in developing new features and technologies, they are also scrambling to file patents to protect their intellectual property. 

How you can make a difference: Intellectual property law is a fascinating space to explore when it comes to self-driving cars. IP attorneys work closely with companies to implement and protect their patents. Of course, this work doesn’t come without its challenges, as competition from some of the biggest companies in the world is rife.

2. Competition, Mergers and Acquisitions, and Antitrust

Speaking of competition, it goes without saying that with major corporations like General Motors, Tesla and Google all looking to own the self-driving space, regulators like the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice will be watching the space closely. Regulators will be monitoring behavior that prevents healthy competition in the market or creates a monopoly. As an example, take Amazon purchasing Zoox, a developer of self-driving technology, in 2020. This move obviously solidifies Amazon as a global leader in the robotics and e-commerce space, but does it create a monopoly in the market? 

How you can make a difference: These are the questions that antitrust lawyers will be asking — and answering — as the number of companies looking to enter the space increases.  

3. Data Security and Privacy

Will somebody please think of all that data?! To do the driving for you, your car needs to know all about you: where you live, eat and work. The route you take to get home. How often you drive and who you visit on a regular basis. The more data your car consumes about you, the better it can serve you. Sounds cool but also a little creepy, no? 

How you can make a difference: This is where the data security and privacy law experts come in. For companies manufacturing self-driving cars that process and store so much personal data, it’s critical for them to ensure your information is protected and that there are protections in place in case there is a data breach. 

4. Civil Litigation and Criminal Law

What happens if your self-driving car has an accident, and, in turn, you injure someone or causes costly damage? But you weren’t technically ‘driving’ it at the time? Are you responsible? Or is the car manufacturer or the software developer? What if you were driving, but you felt like the self-driving controls were still on, and the car should have protected you? Are you the only one who’s liable or is the car manufacturer or software developer also responsible? 

How you can make a difference: Self-driving cars open the doors for all kinds of unique and complex civil and criminal cases, which will keep attorneys busy for many years to come.

5. Product Liability and Class Actions

As with any new technology, particularly one impacting something used as pervasively as cars, there will be bumps in the road. There might be issues with artificial intelligence technology if an accident occurs. And then these might turn out to be systemic issues impacting multiple vehicles triggering a class action, which is a group of individuals who have been injured by the same defendant in the same way. What if there’s a third-party technology involved (e.g., the brakes system) and the defect might stem from there? Can the driver or company cross-claim? We live in a class-action hungry world and have incredibly high product standards that are closely regulated.