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A Better Partnership


Jun 2014
June 06, 2014

Autonomous Vehicles Speed Ahead While Regulation Lags Behind

Google announced in April that its fleet of autonomous vehicles is now capable of maneuvering through city streets.  Google has been testing a fleet of cars on highways and more recently, city streets, in California and claims that it has logged 700,000 miles while its cars were in self-driving mode and has caused no accidents thus far. 

At the same time that Google announced its progress, Volvo officials said the company’s “Drive Me” project to test autonomous vehicles on streets in Sweden is also moving forward.  Volvo will test its fleet of 100 self-driving cars on city streets in Gothenburg, Sweden. 

And in May, GM, Ford, Toyota and the University of Michigan announced plans to establish a testing site for driverless cars, called the Michigan Mobility Transformation Center.  This 32-acre testing site in Ann Arbor is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2014. 

Perhaps optimistically, Volvo claims it intends to sell up to 100 driverless cars to customers in 2017.  Similarly, Google has also announced plans to make its technology available to the public sometime between 2017 and 2020. 

Although driverless car technology is moving forward, legislation allowing testing and eventually, use, of automated vehicles is sparse. Only a few states have passed laws allowing testing of autonomous vehicles, including California, Nevada, Michigan and Florida. Those states generally permit testing under certain conditions, such as requiring a human operator to be present in the vehicle, technology that allows a driver to quickly take manual control in an emergency, a visual indicator that signals when the vehicle is operating in autonomous mode, and a specialized license.

Washington, D.C. has passed a law that would allow operation, not just testing, of autonomous vehicles. In accordance with a law passed in 2012, the District of Columbia Department of Motor Vehicles proposed rules in April 2014 that would allow such use. 

One provision in the District of Columbia’s rules, however, requires that drivers obtain a specialized license to drive autonomous vehicles. Part of that license requires a certification by the driver that he or she “was trained by a vehicle manufacturer or a vehicle dealer in the operation of an autonomous vehicle and has received instruction concerning the capabilities and limitations of an autonomous vehicle.” It would seem that for the foreseeable future only testers of driverless cars will be able to obtain such certification, as the technology is not yet available to the public. 

Many states that have passed or are considering legislation defer to any future rules promulgated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is responsible for developing motor vehicle safety standards and regulations.  NHTSA, however, has not yet issued regulations regarding automated vehicles.  In fact, NHTSA has cautioned states against detailed state regulations regarding the safety of self-driving vehicles, stating that the technology is in the early stages and detailed regulation is not feasible at this stage. 

NHTSA has recommended that states not permit, at this time, operation of self-diving vehicles other than for testing, cautioning that a number of technological issues and human performance issues must be addressed first. 

Besides regulation of automated vehicles, there are other concerns that are not yet addressed in legislation either enacted or proposed by states. Although automated vehicle technology offers the potential to vastly reduce the number of vehicle crashes, accidents will still occur. And the laws that have been passed or are in consideration generally do not address liability issues. 

Proposed and enacted laws generally provide that the occupant of the vehicle will be deemed the “driver” of an autonomous vehicle regardless of the mode of operation. And certain states have proposed or enacted legislation that exempts original vehicle manufacturers from liability when the vehicle has been converted to a driverless vehicle by a third party.

Still, these laws do not address who is liable when an accident does occur. 

If a pedestrian is hit while a car is driving in “autonomous” mode, the driver may be liable under current tort laws. But the pedestrian could also conceivably sue the vehicle manufacturer (or provider of driverless technology), or the driver could seek indemnification from the manufacturer, because of a claimed defect or malfunction in the vehicle technology. 

Other concerns, such as how often vehicle software must be updated to anticipate known road perils, have not been addressed.  Until such concerns are addressed, vehicle manufacturers may be hesitant to offer fully automated vehicle technology. 

Accordingly, even if automated technology becomes available in the near future, legislation or regulations will be needed that both permit driving of automated vehicles and address numerous concerns regarding liability and safety. It remains to be seen whether the lawmakers and regulators can catch up and keep pace with the technology.

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