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Self-Driving Cars and the Law: States and Carmakers Must Come to Terms on Several Issues


When it comes to self-driving cars, state governments have their hands full. To date, the biggest task faced by some states has involved officially permitting autonomous-vehicle (AV) testing on their roads and regulating such testing. But that’s just a toe dip into the water.

Although some autonomous-vehicle issues will be settled on a national level, states shoulder the lion’s share of motoring responsibilities and regulations. States oversee road safety, register vehicles and issue driver’s licenses, as well as legislate and enforce traffic laws.

In one form or another, autonomous vehicles (AVs) are coming. How soon the first consumer-owned totally autonomous vehicle, requiring neither a steering wheel nor brake pedal, rolls onto a public road is open to debate. Even if it’s 20 years from now, we will see vehicles perfectly capable of driving on their own in limited situations in the next few years. More than one carmaker has promised such cars by 2020.

Simply unprepared, states have much to consider and address, and not much in the way of time in which to do it. A recent study called “Autonomous Vehicles Meet Human Drivers: Traffic Safety Issues for States,” published by the Governors Highway Safety Association, is a clanging bell awakening states to the huge task ahead of them.

Currently, only nine states and the District of Columbia have any sort of AV regulations on the books. Several of those do no more than define an AV or authorize a study of AVs and their impact.

AV and Miles-Traveled Projections

Based on current technologies, carmaker predictions and assorted studies, the report projects the percentage of new-vehicle sales, AVs as a percentage of the total vehicle fleet and the percentage of total miles traveled by AVs. Although technology can make unforeseen leaps forward, these are the report’s best guesses.

Because of cost, consumer resistance and other factors, the penetration of AVs into the total vehicle population will be fairly insignificant through the 2020s: no more than 2 percent. With AVs representing as much as 40 percent of new-car sales in the 2030s, they will comprise up to 20 percent of the total population. This will rise to 40 percent in the 2040s. Not until the 2050s does the report expect AV sales to reach 80 to 100 percent of new-car sales. Even then, AVs will only comprise roughly 60 percent of the total vehicle population.

Areas for State Oversight

  • Certification: Each state must certify that an AV’s autonomous technology is safe when all hardware and software are functioning as designed, as well as able to safely operate when hardware/software failures occur.
  • Registration: AVs not requiring a human driver — even for limited periods — should be identified as such, referencing their operational design domain (ODD), which outlines the strict conditions under which they may operate without a driver.
  • Drivers: States must sort out the different levels of autonomy, deciding which will require a licensed driver and under what circumstances. Even if a car isn’t totally autonomous, should it require a licensed driver if only operating within its ODD?
  • Laws: Sweeping changes to many current laws will be necessary to accommodate cars that, to at least some degree, drive themselves. States will need to reevaluate laws requiring drivers do certain things, like keeping their hands on the steering wheel, carrying driver’s licenses, and not texting or performing other distracted tasks.

Law Enforcement Issues

  • How will an officer identify an AV and determine if it’s operating within its ODD?
  • How will an officer pursue an AV, intercept it and make a traffic stop?
  • How will an officer deal with an unmanned AV suspected of transporting contraband or drugs?
  • How will an officer investigate a crash involving one or more AVs?
  • How should officers be trained to deal with AV issues in general?

What it means to you: For carmakers and other developers of self-driving cars, getting AVs to the showrooms is only one piece of the AV puzzle. A lot of pieces must fall into place before our roads are teeming with vehicles driving themselves.

Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps is an author specializing in automotive, financial and travel news. For nearly 35 years he has covered the automotive industry for newspapers, magazines and internet websites. His resume includes The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald, The Washington Times and numerous other daily newspapers through syndication. He edited Auto World magazine, and helped create and edit NOPI Street... Read More about Russ Heaps

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