The Role of IP in our Driverless Future

There is no one still living who knew a time before the automobile.  Last year, Google revealed a new prototype of its driverless car, which had no steering wheel, gas pedal, or brakes.  This was the first 100% autonomous car to come from Googles long-time project.  Google has not revealed any immediate plans to commercialize this car, though it does hope to market the system and the data behind it to automobile manufacturers.  Britain is currently testing similar technology developed at Oxford University, which uses a 3D laser scanner rather than GPS navigation, on it’s roads.
Some raise moral concerns over this technology.  These cars may drive better, but how will they make moral decisions in scenarios where an accident is imminent and unavoidable?  Though the operation of autonomous cars is permitted in 4 US states, the California Department of Motor Vehicles raised concerns that all current driving laws presume that a human is operating the vehicle in question.  This technology presents a variety of legal questions.  For example, how will fault be allocated in an accident?  Can Google and Oxford develop “ethical crashing algorithms?”  Driverless cars will inevitably break and crash sometimes. Who is held accountable in such cases?  It may be the programmers who wrote the underlying code, making this a question of software IP.  The recent Alice v CLS Bank decision of the US Supreme Court has shown us that the status of IP protection for software is vexed and in flux. Driverless cars will be one type of connected device where legal issues (collaborative creation, device interoperability, digital circumvention, ownership of APIs) will be front and center.