How Old Should My Kid Be, Alone, in a Driverless Car?

“Ride sharing services for my kids” will make any parent salivate. But, it’s just not that simple……

Current Landscape

Today, 19 states have laws forbidding a parent to leave a child alone in an unattended vehicle. Another 15 states have proposed laws on this.

In the era of driverless cars, those rules will have to change.

Parents will be salivating at the idea of road drones taking their kids to play dates, ball games, baseball practice, violin lessons or even school. Millions of parenting hours will be saved.

While each state has its own regulations on the age that one may leave a child in an unattended car (Tenth Amendment strikes again!), generally the cutoff is 9 years old.

That’s a good place to start when contemplating the world of driverless cars. Because, a number of foundational questions arise:

  • At what age should it be proper to send a child alone in a driverless car?
  • What if that child has developmental challenges?
  • Should the doors automatically lock, or should the child be free to exit?
  • Should the law be different if the kid is driving in a car owned by the family vs. Uber?
  • Should these be state or federal laws? What if the vehicle crosses state lines?

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How Old is Old Enough?

Using the existing 9-year-old baseline, one would have to assume a higher standard for placing a child in a moving unattended vehicle than a stationery one. The risks to the child, obviously, are far greater when the vehicle is moving, and thus should require a higher bar of maturity.

On the other end of the scale, the age to gain a learner’s permit for driving is 16 years old in nearly every state. (For about 40 percent of the U.S., a full license can be earned only six months after that).

So, in deciding the proper age for allowing children to ride in driverless vehicles, we are in the very difficult window of 9-16 years-olds. Difficult because, during that age, the level of development and maturation varies wildly. Females, in general, mature faster than males. Go to any Bar or Bat Mitzvah (full of 13-year-olds) and you’ll see tall kids, short kids, fully developed kids, those who look like they’re eight years old, kids acting maturely or the opposite.

It’s hard not to conclude that applying a single maturity standard for all 9-16 year olds – and putting that into law – is a fool’s errand. Probably why most age-based standards are set at 16, 18 or 21 years old – when the large majority of that age group reaches an appropriate bar of maturity.

Yet, one of the main benefits of driverless cars will likely be replacing the never-ending shuttle activity that many parents dread. Somehow, we’ll need to legislate for that, while also protecting children from being placed in situations beyond their abilities.

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Common-Sense Guidelines

Let me thus suggest nine potential guidelines for gaining the benefits of unattended child chauffeuring, without the attending risks:

1. No unattended children in any vehicle – moving or stationary – under the age of 10.  

2. Upon a child’s 10th birthday, they become eligible to take a short test, to assess their maturity, judgement and safety IQ. The test, like other vehicle tests, would be developed and administered by the state DMV.  

3. If a child passes the test, they’ll be issued a permit to be a passenger in a licensed, unattended vehicle. (Those vehicles would require safety checks, as well, to ensure that there’s no transport failure). The permit must accompany the child on each ride.

4. Each child may take this test once a year. So, if they don’t pass at age 10, they’ll be eligible to take the test again at age 11. And onward.

5. All children – whether they pass the test or not – will be eligible to ride in driverless cars once they reach their 14th birthday.

6. Only legal guardians would be allowed to place children in driverless cars. That would complicate return trips from play dates or Little League, so maybe some wiggle room here is needed. Perhaps parents could “program” a round-trip into the vehicle.

7. No more than two eligible children per driverless vehicle. If you’ve ever had a kids’ sleepover party, you know the geometric disruption growth that comes with each additional kid added into the mix.

8. No vehicles allowed to cross state lines, unless agreed by the individual states. Essentially, similar to Learner’s Permit regulations.

9. One thorny question: Should the child be free to exit the vehicle before the intended destination? Or should the doors lock until then? That’s a tough one. Strong arguments can be made for both sides. Let’s save that discussion for another post.

These seem to be a reasonable set of solutions to what is, admittedly, a very tricky proposition.

Article written by: Charles Bogle 3.0.  Submitted: 3/6/17

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