Till now, they have been classified as concept cars, so no one really gave much thought to the laws governing a car without a driver. Now that they are driving closer to reality—Google’s version has been extensively test-driven and others like Nissan in Japan and even Mahindra in India are looking at producing driverless cars—there is some clarity on what kind of laws would be required. California, the state where Google is based, has already come out with some guidelines on what kind of legal provisions would govern cars without drivers. It says that these cars will require a special license, such as those given to drivers of specialised heavy-duty vehicles. Since there is no driver, the licence will be given to employees of the car manufacturer. This licence involves safety training under special circumstances. The manufacturers will also have to apply for an annual permit apart from ensuring the vehicle also has manual controls and override systems. They will also need to procure a hefty insurance certificate at a much higher fee than normal road cars. These rules come into effect from September 2014.
Google’s driverless cars, so far, have had a clean record. The fleet of modified Lexus sedans have driven more than 700,000 miles without an accident. However, it’s not so much the driverless cars that are an issue but the cars driving alongside them. The new laws, for instance, dictate that driverless prototypes must have a human operator sitting in the car, able to take control if necessary. Till now, Google’s driverless cars do not have manual controls. Clearly, laws on such untested products, which will be launched on public roads, will need to evolve along with the technology, which is itself evolving and becoming more advanced. Google is way ahead in the field, which is why California has passed the laws, but others in the field are nowhere close. Nissan is looking at 2020 and Mahindra has just announced a prize for technological expertise on producing a driverless car. Once they do hit the road, however, the question will not be about the cars themselves, but what happens if there is a crash involving a car without a driver at the wheel.