Driverless cars: is Australian law ready?

With driverless cars soon to hit Australian roads, the future is now. But legally speaking and from a road-safety standpoint, is Australia ready for it? 

Technology and automotive circles are abuzz with talk of driverless-car technology, which looks likely to start hitting Australian roads in the near future. But the introduction of intelligent, robot-powered automobiles brings with it a number of complicated questions, and our lawmakers and court system are still grappling with the answers. 

Personal responsibility

By now, you may have heard that car maker Tesla recently had to contend with the first unfortunate death involving one of its driverless cars. Consequently, the company has issued a statement that maintains when there’s somebody in one of Tesla’s cars, that person is still responsible to themselves and to others on the road, and that drivers cannot and should not rely on the driverless system.

This, of course, presents some interesting challenges, because people will be acting on the belief that the driverless car is working properly. However, like Tesla, Australia’s current legal stance for traffic offences is that drivers have a personal responsibility to ensure their car complies with local road rules.

So, if you’re in a driverless car, Australia’s road rules will still be in force, even though you may feel as though you’ve handed over responsibility to the car. This means you’ll still be at fault for:

  • running a red light
  • not giving way
  • not indicating
  • not stopping at a pedestrian crossing.

And so on. In other words, you can’t blame the driverless car.

This also means, as the law currently stands, if your driverless car is involved in an accident, you as the vehicle’s owner are still liable in the same way you are as a human driver, although you may have a potential claim against Tesla. However, there’s a big grey area.

Overriding the system

This grey area arises as part of personal responsibility, because Tesla also asserts that it’s up to the person in the driverless car to override the system if something goes wrong. This begs a number of questions:

  • How quickly can a personmake the decision to override the system?
  • By then, does the person have sufficienttime to override the system?
  • Does the driver have the capability to reverse the bad situation that the driverless system creates?

Imagine, for example, a horrible scenario in which a car is driving at 100km/h, when all of a sudden, the driverless system radically swerves in the wrong direction. As the driver, you may frantically try to correct the situation but may not have enough time to do so. Alternatively, you may overcorrect, which could still result in an accident.

Worse still, what if you’re in a single-vehicle accident (just you and your driverless car), and it results in your death? How do investigators determine whether it was your conduct or the behaviour of the driverless system that caused your death? In such cases, where does the fault fall? Not surprisingly, these issues are creating a great deal of uncertainty.

Implications for Australian road laws

Taking the human element out of the driving experience raises still more thought-provoking questions. For instance, if a car is driverless, does this mean you can drink and drive? What about taking a nap behind the wheel if you get tired? For now, of course, the answer still has to be no, because of that overarching personal responsibility and obligation to override the system if necessary.

And what about the differences in road rules between Australia’s states and territories? Have the driverless cars been programmed to identify the different rules that exist when travelling from state to state? Will the driverless car recognise when it’s crossed over the border from New South Wales into Victoria or Queensland, for example? At this stage, we just don’t know the answers.

What’s clear is, while we think the concept of driverless cars is overall a positive move towards the future, we still have a long way to go to. We need to really understand how all these new factors will fit into our current legal system if driverless cars are going to work safely on our roads.

Driverless cars

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Andrew McKenzie

Maurice Blackburn Sunshine Coast
Andrew McKenzie is a passionate fighter for what is fair. He is a Principal at Maurice Blackburn and head of one of our Queensland departments. Andrew has been listed by the prestigious Doyle's Guide as a lawyer of note. He has spent 29 ...

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