On a drive in a convoy of Google's autonomous vehicles last week, a difficult driving situation arose.
As our platoon approached a major intersection, two Google cars ahead of us crept forward into the intersection, preparing to make left turns. The oncoming traffic took nearly the whole green light to clear, so the first car made the left as the green turned to yellow. The second, however, was caught in that tough spot where the car is in the intersection but the light is turning, and the driver can either try to back up out of the intersection or gun it and make the left, even though he or she or it knows the light is going to turn red before the maneuver is complete. The self-driving car gunned it, which was the correct decision, I think. But it was also the kind of decision that was on the borderline of legality.
It got me wondering: had these cars ever gotten a ticket driving around Mountain View, where they've logged 10,000 miles?
"We have not cited any Google self-driving cars," Sergeant Saul Jaeger, the press information officer at the Mountain View Police Department, told me. They hadn't pulled one over and let the vehicle go, either, to Jaeger's knowledge.
I wondered if that was because of a pre-existing agreement between Google and the department, but Jaeger said, "There is no agreement in place between Google and the PD."
Google confirmed that they none of their cars had ever been ticketed in Mountain View or elsewhere.
Nonetheless, their existence and the lack of a pre-existing agreement with the Mountain View Police Department brings up an interesting question. To whom should the ticket be given? When the car is in operation, there is someone sitting in the driver's seat, but that person isn't actually doing anything. Perhaps the ticket should go to the programmer who wrote the algorithm that made the mistake?
"Right now the California Vehicle Code reads that the person seated in the driver's seat is responsible for the movement of the vehicle," Mountain View PD's Jaeger tole me in an email. "Exceptions being someone grabbing the steering wheel and forcing the car off the roadway, etc."
Perhaps the way the driverless car takes control of the vehicle is analogous to someone grabbing the wheel?
Google itself argues that the ticket should go to ... well, Google itself.
"What we've been saying to the folks in the DMV, even in public session, for unmanned vehicles, we think the ticket should go to the company. Because the decisions are not being made by the individual," said Ron Medford, safety director for Google's self-driving car program, and the former deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
But, I asked Medford, what about states, like California, that hand out "points" for traffic violations in order to rate people's driving records?
"Well, it does seem like there has to be some accommodation for the idea that it's not a person anymore, it's a machine. And the legislature in California kind of anticipated that" Medford said, referring to Senate Bill 1298 (Vehicle Code §38750), which requires the Department of Motor Vehicles to "adopt regulations governing the testing and use of autonomous vehicles on public roadways no later than January 1, 2015."
"What's not happened yet," Medford continued, "is that they haven't changed the motor vehicle codes. We've encouraged the DMV to think creatively about how you deal with this so they don't give a ticket to a person who is not responsible or involved in driving."
So far, the DMV has held four public hearings, the most recent of which was in March. These are nitty-gritty meetings in which everything, including the definitions of all the words, are picked apart.
The assistant chief counsel for the California DMV, Brian Soublet, opened the most recent meeting asking, specifically, if anyone had comments on the definition of operator in the legal code. "The vehicle code defines an operator as the person seated in the driver's seat," Soublet said, "or if there is no one seated in the driver's seat, the person who causes the autonomous technology to engage."