Autonomous vehicles, that is, vehicles that can operate without human drivers, have become a more common feature of cityscapes across America. States have begun to pass laws that regulate autonomous vehicles, or autonomous driving systems (“ADSs”). These laws may specify when and how an ADS is used or may require studies before implementing such systems.
As of 2017, 33 states had introduced legislation relating to autonomous vehicles, with 29 states passing legislation. The laws may take a wide variety of forms. Many laws concerning ADSs are simply meant to explore the potential of the technology. Laws designed to develop, test, and implement autonomous driving technology have been passed in several states, including Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, Ohio, Washington, and Wisconsin. Other laws are more narrowly focused on encouraging particular practices. For example, Alabama enacted a “truck platoon” law allowing a group of commercial trucks operated at speeds coordinated by an electronic coordination system to travel at distances closer than would be allowed otherwise. Other states, including Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Nevada, have enacted similar laws. Such laws provide an exemption from ordinary highway regulations on the assumption that autonomous driving technology provides quicker braking and more precise control of distance. Platoons may also save fuel and cut down on delays in the transport of goods.
Other states want to collect and study data generated by the cars themselves, or data concerning the cars’ use and safety. For instance, North Dakota requires its Department of Transportation to monitor the data collected by driverless cars. California requires companies to monitor specific categories of data, including the number of times an autonomous system disengages, requiring a human driver to take over.
Aside from the wealth of new legislation relating to autonomous driving systems, this technology may prompt other changes in the law as well. For example, ADSs raise questions of liability. In case of an accident, ordinary laws of vehicular negligence might not apply. Under ordinary circumstances, a driver (and the driver’s insurance) would have to compensate a victim for injuries sustained in an accident. However, if there is no human driver, liability might more closely resemble product liability, shifting responsibility to the company operating the car (in the case of a commercial vehicle) or to the company that created the technology. As driverless technology becomes more popular, it will undoubtedly change not only the urban landscape but the legal landscape as well.