As a kid, I watched The Jetsons, and boy - I was really looking forward to getting my flying car! Sadly, it doesn’t look like that is going to happen any time soon, but there is something cool headed our way: self-driving cars. At the moment, they are being tested only, but Michigan is planning ahead (which seems appropriate, since Michigan is the birthplace of the auto industry). By passing a package of four new laws, Michigan is the now first state to have comprehensive self-driving regulations. When the first self-driving cars, or fleet of cars (think something like Uber, only driverless), arrive, Michigan will be ready. But is this a good thing? Should other states follow?
There is no doubt that self-driving cars will need to be thoughtfully regulated. As a lawyer, a big part of my job is establishing liability when something goes wrong. I know that having clear laws and regulations helps victims recover appropriate damages after an accident. But they do something even more important: they can help prevent accidents by making crystal clear who, exactly, is responsible for what, exactly, before anything goes wrong in the first place. If auto makers know for sure that they will be held responsible if one of their self-driving cars is in an accident (which Michigan’s new law makes clear), they will be more likely to test every single possible circumstance to make sure their car is safe. So in that sense, these regulations are a good thing: they will help shape the industry and ultimately make it safer for consumers.
But there’s a bigger issue here that worries me. What do Michigan’s laws mean for Virginia? And what would Virginia’s laws (if and when we pass them) mean for Maryland? Do we really want state-by-state regulation for the self-driving car industry? I would argue that we don’t. The states are good at regulating some things (like road speed…it’s appropriate for a state like Montana to have a higher speed limit than a state like Virginia), but not in this case. What the emerging industry needs are federal regulations to ensure consistency as self-driving cars cross state lines (which they’ll do a lot around here!). One big issue in particular: Michigan’s laws allow only auto manufacturers to operate a fleet of self-driving, on-demand cars. That means GM could launch an Uber-style driving service, but Apple (which is also testing self-driving cars) could not. That might be good for Michigan business, but for the entire country? Probably not. I could point to other examples, but you get the picture – federal regulations make more sense than state-by-state regulations in this case.
And just where are the federal regulations? They don’t exist. They should, because this technology has been on the horizon for a while now, but they don’t. So the states are stepping in because some regulation is better than none at this point, if the federal government won’t take the lead. Which is the topic for another blog post (or ten!)…but for now, I’ll just leave you with: self-driving cars! How cool is that?!