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California Self-Driving Cars Exempt From Traffic Tickets

Self-driving cars can’t get traffic tickets in California. Credit: Getty images

Want to get out of a traffic ticket in California? Don’t drive.

OK, that might seem a bit obvious, so let me put it another way: Self-driving cars are immune to traffic tickets in California under the state’s current laws, according to NBC Bay Area. That loophole has led activists to urge the state to pass new laws and put watchdogs in place to govern driverless cars more closely.

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit obtained an internal memo from San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott that instructs officers that “no citation for a moving violation can be issued if the [autonomous vehicle] is being operated in a driverless mode.” 

“Technology evolves rapidly and, at times, faster than legislation or regulations can adapt to the changes,” Scott added, according to NBC Bay Area.

According to a June report from the San Francisco Standard, part of the reason the city doesn’t cite self-driving cars for moving violations was that there wasn’t actually anyone to cite.

“When you’re a police officer out there in the field, and there’s a vehicle that has violated the vehicle code, which happens every day in San Francisco, who do you give the citation to?” Jeffrey Tumlin, director of transportation at the SFMTA, told the outlet. “There is additional work that needs to be done to clarify what happens when an autonomous vehicle breaks the law.”

It makes sense that it’s tough to get good legislation passed on technology that is so rapidly changing, but it isn’t impossible. After all, Texas and Arizona both rewrote their state’s traffic laws to ensure that if driverless cars break the law on the road, they can be ticketed, NBC News reported.

This new directive appears to be a change in policy. In 2018, a passenger in a Cruise self-driving car was ticketed for a moving violation carried out by the autonomous vehicle, which was maybe not the best policy either. To make matters even more confusing, autonomous vehicles in California can still receive parking citations — they’re just immune to moving violations. But moving is really where the problems lie for many self-driving vehicles.

In August 2023, California regulators began allowing Waymo and Cruise, two of the more popular self-driving car companies, to work as a taxi service 24/7 in San Francisco. Just ten days later, a Cruise self-driving car and a fire truck crashed in the city and the California Department of Motor Vehicles asked the company to decrease the number of driverless cars on the road. 

On the one hand, the makers of these autonomous vehicles say the cars need more miles logged to get better. But activists argue that, sure, the cars might need more miles, but do those miles have to be logged on the same busy roads that humans drive and pedestrians walk? And shouldn’t there be a way to ensure that if those cars break laws, they’re held to the same standard human beings are?

Christianna Silva is a Senior Culture Reporter at Mashable. They write about tech and digital culture, with a focus on Facebook and Instagram. Before joining Mashable, they worked as an editor at NPR and MTV News, a reporter at Teen Vogue and VICE News, and as a stablehand at a mini-horse farm. You can follow them on Twitter @christianna_j.

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