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."
Medford was present at that meeting and made the first public response. He tries to draw the distinction between corporate and corporeal personhood in the definition of an operator.
"A person, if it is defined as a human person and not a corporation, that's what we're really wondering about," Medford said. "Even in this definition... does a person mean a human individual or can it mean something more? It would seem to me that in the future it might mean something different."
The DMV's Soublet responded: "Well, right, if you look at the common definitions that are in the vehicle code, a person includes a corporation and a partnership and other forms of entities. So when we think of a vehicle being operated, is it that inclusive? Is the operator that person, that could be a corporation?"
Again, Medford: "I think it would be important to make sure it stays as flexible and anticipates the future as much as possible, so it doesn't refer to a person in the human kind, at least. And it sounds like the vehicle code has a definition that allows flexibility, which I think may work, right?"
"It may. It may," Soublet said, "unless you have some other suggestions... For example, if you have a suggestion on additional verbiage we may want to use for operator."
Consumer Watchdog's John Simpson spoke next, responding, it seemed, to the solicitousness of the DMV counsel. "I'm not sure that you want to provide maximum flexibility. I think you want to have a pretty good idea of what you're allowing and not allowing. To sort of say, 'We want to be able to do anything and be maximally flexible,' causes a little bit of concern for me. I worry about that notion, sort of open-ended, let's be completely flexible. We don't know what we're going to do today. We don't know what we're going to do tomorrow. So we'll be flexible about everything."
But it certainly doesn't seem like Google's going to have a difficult time getting its way with the DMV. Soublet's frame for the situation would seem to guarantee that Google will have the flexibility it wants.
"If we are too constrained in the definition—and we talk about thwarting innovation—the problem may be that we have created something that even if we go to an additional rulemaking process, it takes about a year to get a regulation done. So then you'd have to have that waiting period as you're going through that whole developmental process," Soublet said. "It's not we want to be completely flexible, but we also want to keep in mind that to make changes, it would take time to make changes. And this is an area of technology that seems to be developing rather rapidly."
From the public comments at the meeting, the DMV sees its role—at least in part—as clearing the field of encumbrances for the technological development of autonomous cars to occur.
Listening to the debate, I also can't help thinking that perhaps the key enabling social technology for autonomous vehicles was the creation of the concept of corporate personhood.
Because robotics companies need corporate persons to accept the legal responsibility for the work algorithms do.