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Police departments aren’t ticketing fully autonomous cars

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Three police departments in major U.S. cities where fully autonomous vehicles (AV) are operating say they can’t write moving violation tickets if there’s no driver, raising questions about civil liability.

The San Francisco Police Department (SFPD), Phoenix Police Department (PPD), and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) all confirmed with Repairer Driven News that moving violations are not issued to vehicles with no driver.

Moving violations can be used, at times, to prove fault in civil liability cases, including ones that cause injury or damage. Regardless of if a ticket is issued, police departments often write which party they believe is at fault into reports or logs.

Alphabet’s Waymo ride-hailing service currently operates without a driver in Phoenix, Arizona, and San Francisco, California. Amazon’s Zoox taxi service operates without a driver in Las Vegas, Nevada and Foster City, California.

General Motors’ Cruise operated driverless taxis in San Francisco, Phoenix, and Austin, Texas but paused driverless operations after the California Department of Motor Vehicles (CDMV) suspended operations due to safety and the company “misrepresenting” information.

Eve Laokwansathitaya, the SFPD spokesperson, said Tuesday that safety drivers could be cited for moving violations if an AV is stopped by law enforcement. However, if the vehicle is absent a driver no citation for a moving violation can be issued.

“When a traffic stop is conducted, regardless of whether a citation is issued or not, members shall write an incident report that includes the following: Responsible company > License plate number Car number and/or name > Name and/or operator ID of the safety driver/remote operator Date, time, and location > Description of violation observed > Result of traffic stop (citation, warning, etc.),” Laokwansathitaya said in an email.

The CDMV avoided answering specific questions about current state law regarding the ticketing of fully autonomous vehicles.

“Autonomous vehicle manufacturers with a permit to test or deploy driverless vehicles in California must provide information to law enforcement/first responders in the area they are permitted to operate on how to interact with their autonomous vehicles in the event of a traffic stop or another incident,” CDMV said in a Tuesday email. “As part of the permitting process, an autonomous vehicle manufacturer must certify that the vehicle is designed to detect and respond to roadway situations in compliance with all provisions of the California Vehicle Code.”

In Arizona, the state has changed a law to address moving violations made by AVs.

Bill Lamoreaux, Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) spokesman, said in an email Wednesday that Arizona revised state statute 28-9702 to speak to traffic citations for AVs.

“The fully autonomous vehicle is capable of complying with all applicable traffic and motor vehicle safety laws of this state and the person who submits the written statement for the fully autonomous vehicle may be issued a traffic citation or other applicable penalty if the vehicle fails to comply with traffic or motor vehicle laws,” the law states.

Lamoreaux said additionally, the state’s law enforcement protocol defines “person” during law enforcement interaction with an AV.

“‘Person’ includes a corporation, company, partnership, firm, association or society, as well as a natural person,” the protocol says. “When the word ‘person’ is used to designate the party whose property may be the subject of a criminal or public offense, the term includes the United States, this state, or any territory, state or country, or any political subdivision of this state that may lawfully own any property, or a public or private corporation, or partnership or association. When the word ‘person’ is used to designate the violator or offender of any law, it includes corporation, partnership or any association of persons.”

While the law is changed in Arizona, the Phoenix Police Department still has difficulty writing a ticket to AVs, department spokesman Rob Scherer said on Wednesday.

Vehicles operating without drivers currently in Phoenix are registered to the company’s owner, Scherer said.

“It’s not feasible for us to locate the owner of the company for every moving violation,” Scherer said.

He said the department documents details, such as fault, in a report.

“If at fault can be determined and if they [AVs] are determined to be the at-fault vehicle in a collision, we will determine at-fault on the scene during the majority of our collisions,” Scherer said.

The Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles did not respond to Repairer Driven News questions.

LVMD did respond in an email Wednesday to say, “We are unable to ticket totally autonomous vehicles for moving violations.”

Adam Wandt, an attorney and associate professor of Public Policy at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said Thursday that he’s spent many hours in the past year sitting around tables with attorneys and police officers discussing AVs.

“When it comes to law and liability, it is clear that many of the current state statutes don’t apply,” Wandt said. “There is no universal agreement of whether the driver should be responsible for the autonomous vehicle. Until we figure out this issue it is probably important for states to draft laws to hold someone responsible.”

Wandt said current law wouldn’t ticket a passenger in a vehicle for moving violations, such as speeding.

Ticketing a company for a moving violation will unlikely change the outcome, Wandt said.

“Even if we start issuing tickets to Waymo, that amount of money is a drop in the bucket,” Wandt said.

A ticket or lack of a ticket has, at times, played a part in calculating fault in civil liability cases.

“If a vehicle cannot get a ticket anymore, you obviously wouldn’t want to take that into account,” Wandt said.

He said that the lack of a ticket is unlikely to play a large role in civil liability.

“When it comes to civil liability, there is a much straighter path,” Wandt said. “I don’t think [AVs] will change the civil liability equation much.”

As more AVs enter roadways, there will be new issues for government to pay attention to, Wandt said.

“The truth is we are going to have a rough decade figuring out these rules,” Wandt said. “We have to look at how to fairly handle it with an eye on improving autonomous vehicles. The end result is not a small city getting money for a ticket, how do we make it so that people don’t die from a car crash ever again.”


Photos courtesy of ftwitty/iStock

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