Are Self-Driving Cars Legal?

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Recently, there have been a number of stories in the news about the development of autonomous automobiles, or self-driving cars. In fact, a number of states have taken interest in this technology and have passed legislation approving the deployment of self-driving vehicles to their roads. So what are these laws? What do they allow or prohibit? Which states currently authorize self-driving vehicles?

Since the beginning of 2012, 17 states and the District of Columbia have debated legislation regarding authorizing self-driving cars on their roads. However, only California, Florida, Nevada, and Washington, D.C. have actually enacted any such laws. Of course, that may not mean that autonomous vehicles are illegal to operate on the roads of other states, only that they are not expressly authorized.

Most states' laws are silent as to whether a human being holds the wheel or not. They typically require a human to be “operating” the vehicle, but the specifics of how many of the vehicle's tasks must actually be undertaken by the driver and which can be taken by the vehicle are not clear. Of course, the laws of most states assume a human being will be in control, but this legal vagueness means that autonomous vehicles may technically be allowed to operate over the roads provided a human being sits behind the wheel.

Indeed, that is exactly the kind of legal gray zone that Google took advantage of when it began testing its prototype self-driving vehicle systems in California. According to Google, it has logged thousands of hours on the road in self-driving mode without a single incident, meaning its autonomous driving system may actually be much more safe and reliable than actual human drivers. As a result, Google has been pushing for a future in which owners of ordinary cars update their equipment with aftermarket parts to make them autonomous while new car makers slowly begin to adopt the self-driving technology. And, it is no surprise, Google is largely the force behind much of this self-driving legalization movement.

Under the laws of Florida and D.C., auto manufacturers’ liability will be limited if an accident or injury occurs related to an autonomously operating vehicle when the outfitted car is equipped with aftermarket parts, making the party that installed the autonomous technology liable instead. Taking autonomous cars to a new level and out of the legal gray zone, the laws enacted in Florida, California, and Nevada even include provisions that anticipate autonomous vehicles driving without human drivers in them. Instead, these laws consider the “operator” of the vehicle to be the person who engages the autonomous technology. Literally, one could send the car to pick someone else up, or return home on its own rather than sit in an unsecured parking lot for a long time, like at the airport.

However, a completely driverless car is actually further than Google has actively advocated at the moment. All of its autonomous vehicles only operate with a licensed driver behind the wheel. Still, it is apparent that such a self-driving future may be Google's ultimate goal with this technology, and it is wise for the law to anticipate this possibility now while the technology remains in its infancy.

Aside from the obvious safety and liability concerns posed by self-driving vehicles, the technology employed may also create other concerns in areas such as privacy. The California law requires that autonomous vehicle technology manufacturers disclose the information they collect while the vehicle is in use (such as GPS coordinates, destinations, times, etc.). This data could obviously be useful to investigators in the future when looking into a criminal's whereabouts, but could also be an invasion of one's privacy and make it virtually impossible to move about without someone being aware of your activities. The Nevada law, on the other hand, requires that autonomous vehicle operators have a special driver’s license endorsement, obviously recognizing the still experimental nature of the technology.

Ultimately, just as with the Internet, the technology itself will decide how the law evolves to cope with self-driving vehicles. Google envisions a world where autonomous vehicles are the norm, and car travel becomes safer than flying. If that is the case, it is a given that a great deal of legislation and government regulation will occur over the next few years as this technology becomes mainstream.


Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer.

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