California has been relatively generous to self-driving automakers. In 2017, the California DMV changed some of its regulations to make way for the use of fully autonomous cars. These modified rules absolved automakers of certain requirements including informing officials of the “operational design domain” of their cars, providing an explanation of the disengagement system for autonomous driving, and verifying that the car cannot operate on its own in certain conditions.
Despite these accommodations to manufacturers, the California DMV has chosen to set some limits for autonomous vehicle manufacturers. It recently banned a rule proposed by General Motors that would have allowed autonomous vehicle companies to avoid liability if the car was not maintained by the owner according to the specifications provided by the manufacturer. This action confirms the state’s willingness to be tough on autonomous car dealers and may signal the direction that authorities are likely to take in determining issues of liability.
The DMV rejected GM’s rule after reviewing comments regarding the plan. The DMV’s actions were praise by Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy group. If the rule had been implemented, car makers would have been free of responsibility in instances where accidents occurred. According to the advocacy group, this is concerning for car owners who may unreasonably bear the bulk of the liability for injuries caused in a collision. The rule could have enabled car manufacturers to avoid responsibility if certain minor maintenance issues were not addressed, like failing to properly inflate the tires or clean the sensors.
The rule proposed by GM presents a significant change from current law for vehicles that require human drivers to operate. In standard cars, automakers can still be found liable for defective features in cars that are deemed to contribute to injuries or damages. The manufacturer may be liable regardless of whether the owner complied with the manufacturer’s instructions for the vehicle.
The allocation of liability is a major component of policymaking for autonomous cars going forward. Other states will likely look to California to craft their policies since California is one of a few states that has already allowed autonomous cars to be driven for testing purposes.
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