Regulators Respond to the Challenges Presented by Autonomous Vehicles

Last March, government officials from the Transportation Department, industry, labor, and other related sectors, held a meeting that was summarized in a lengthy document. While the meetings were held behind closed doors, the summary was made public and was abundantly covered in the media.

According to the written account, regulators asked questions about whether traffic cops should have the ability to disable autonomous cars, or if certain information shared automatically by robo-taxis might violate a passenger’s privacy.

As we have seen in the last few months, the legal, social, and safety issues raised by the circulation of self-driving cars are extremely complex. At a time when not only Tesla or Google’s Waymo, but also the likes of Mercedes-Benz, prepare to launch autonomous car services, these issues are becoming a genuine preoccupation for developers and regulators alike.

One of the topics discussed during the March meetings had to do with the technology’s potential for cyber attacks. Regulators agreed that hacking and terrorist attacks are bound to happen at some point and that “planning exercises are needed to prepare for and mitigate a large-scale, potentially multimodal cyber security attack.”

The lines appear to be blurry when it comes to enabling law enforcement to control autonomous vehicles in case of an emergency. Should cops be able to stop the vehicles if they violate traffic rules? Does this not put the vehicles at risk, i.e., allowing criminals to potentially control the cars using the same type of devices as the police?

The meetings’ summary does not offer many answers. It focuses mainly on trying to ask the right questions. According to a spokesperson for the Transportation Department, “These range from things like, how do you integrate with public safety officials? Should we require the exchange of data? What are our requirements around privacy or cybersecurity address concerns from the disability and elderly communities?”

Whether regulators like it or not, autonomous cars are a reality, and it’s just a matter of time before they flood our streets. While autonomous vehicles have a tremendous potential for storing valuable information relating to crashes and criminal activity, the extent of law enforcement’s reach into those systems is yet to be determined.

Regulators plan to use feedback received during and after the meeting to elaborate updated guidelines for the autonomous vehicle (AV) sector. The new guidelines will likely be released before the end of the summer. Because the different state laws are not always aligned, some industry players are demanding federal legislation that can offer a level playing field for AV manufacturers and operators nationwide.

John Uustal is a Ft. Lauderdale trial lawyer with a national law practice focused on serious injuries resulting from dangerous and poorly designed products. His upcoming book Corporate Serial Killers focuses on companies that choose profits over safety.

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