January 25, 2024, Kitchener, Ontario
Posted by: Robert Deutschmann, Personal Injury Lawyer
The advent of fully autonomous vehicles (AVs) has ushered in a new era of transportation, one where the lines between liability, law enforcement, and civil responsibility are blurred. In major U.S. cities like San Francisco, Phoenix, and Las Vegas, where these vehicles roam the streets without drivers, the absence of a human behind the wheel has sparked an intriguing legal conundrum.
Recent discussions with law enforcement agencies have shed light on a significant challenge: the inability to issue moving violation tickets to driverless vehicles. The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD), Phoenix Police Department (PPD), and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) have all confirmed their limitations in citing vehicles without human drivers.
Moving violations play a pivotal role in determining fault in civil liability cases arising from accidents. Despite the absence of tickets, law enforcement agencies record their perceived at-fault party in reports or logs during incidents involving autonomous vehicles.
Alphabet’s Waymo and Amazon’s Zoox are prominent players in the driverless vehicle domain, operating in cities like Phoenix, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Foster City. However, regulatory challenges have emerged. General Motors' Cruise faced a setback after California's Department of Motor Vehicles suspended its driverless operations due to safety concerns and misrepresented information.
The lack of legal clarity further complicates matters. In instances where safety drivers accompany AVs, they might receive citations during traffic stops. However, when a vehicle operates without a driver, law enforcement faces limitations in issuing moving violation tickets.
California's Department of Motor Vehicles (CDMV) requires autonomous vehicle manufacturers to provide guidelines to law enforcement on interacting with driverless vehicles during traffic stops or incidents. Similarly, Arizona revised its statutes to address traffic citations for AVs and defined the term 'person' in law enforcement protocols to encompass corporations and entities in interactions involving autonomous vehicles.
Despite legislative changes, practical challenges persist. Phoenix Police Department expressed difficulty in ticketing owner-registered autonomous vehicles due to the impracticality of locating every company owner for each moving violation. Instead, fault determination remains a crucial part of their incident reports, particularly in collision cases.
Legal experts and academics, like Adam Wandt, underscore the complexity of liability and law enforcement regarding AVs. The ambiguity surrounding driver responsibility in autonomous vehicles poses a significant challenge. The prevailing laws may not suffice, necessitating the drafting of comprehensive legislation to assign accountability in such scenarios.
While the absence of tickets might seem consequential, its impact on civil liability cases remains debatable. Some argue that civil liability considerations might be less affected by the lack of tickets, as fault determination follows a different trajectory.
Looking ahead, as more autonomous vehicles populate roadways, governments face a pressing need to address regulatory gaps. The evolving nature of these technologies demands a nuanced approach, balancing legal frameworks with the advancement of autonomous vehicles while ensuring public safety.
In essence, the road to integrating fully autonomous vehicles into our lives is fraught with legal intricacies. The focus should not merely revolve around financial penalties but rather on fostering a safer, more accountable ecosystem where accidents become a relic of the past. As the decade unfolds, navigating these legal gray areas will be pivotal in shaping the future of transportation and ensuring a safer journey for all.
Fully autonomous vehicles are not yet in wide use in Ontario. They may only be operated for authorized applicants and for testing purposes.