On May 30, 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) introduced its long awaited policy statement on driverless car technology. According to NHTSA, driverless car technology has “captured the nation’s attention.” Until today (other than a slowly emerging patchwork of state laws), there has been little in the way of federal guidance on driverless car technology. In its policy statement, NHTSA recognized the “enormous safety potential” and “even wider range of possible benefits” that driverless technology can provide. The policy was also clear that NHTSA “does not recommend at this time that states permit operation of self-driving vehicles for purposes other than testing.”

By way of background, driverless car technology is the leading edge of advance vehicle design and could be the biggest shift in vehicle technology in decades of automotive engineering. As NHTSA’s policy notes, driverless car technology will offer significant new opportunities for investments in the underlying technologies and employment in the various industries that develop, manufacture, and maintain them. Major technology companies have already logged 300,000 miles on U.S. roads with self driving cars. Driverless (or automated or autonomous) vehicle technology is advancing at a dramatic pace and states are starting to enact legislation. Driverless car technology has the ability to attract billions in research dollars to those states that create the right legal framework for the development and testing of driverless vehicles. Tangible benefits of this technology include, safer roads, faster commutes, and increased mobility for persons with disabilities. While fully driverless cars are years away, at least one auto industry CEO predicts that driverless cars will be in showrooms by 2020.

Despite the rapid advance in technology, many critical legal issues remain however unaddressed. A critical legal issue becomes who is liable when there is an accident where the driver, was by design, not in control of the vehicle? Who is to blame, the automaker, the occupant, the car’s owner, the supplier that designed or retrofitted the technology? How important will insurance coverage and premiums play in the adaptation of this technology? How robust will this technology be to sustain cyber-attacks that could cause the very collisions this technology was designed to prevent

According to industry experts and the Michigan Department of Transportation, the testing of automated vehicles is increasing. Nevada, Florida, and California have enacted legislation regulating the testing and use of automated vehicles on public roads. On February 7, 2013, Michigan Senate Bill 169 was introduced to provide new safety and liability standards with regard to automated vehicles, accommodate this new and growing industry, and encourage the industry’s growth within the State of Michigan.

Thus, the purpose of NHTSA’s May 30, 2013, Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles (the “Policy”) is to help states implement this technology safely so that its full benefits can be realized. Accordingly, the Policy addresses three main safety related topics to assist in providing guidance for the enactment of related laws:

  • An explanation of the many areas of vehicle innovation and types of automation that offer significant potential for enormous reductions in highway crashes and deaths;
  • A summary of the research NHTSA has planned or has begun to help ensure that all safety issues related to vehicle automation are explored and addressed; and
  • Recommendations to states that have authorized operation of self-driving vehicles, for test purposes, on how best to ensure safe operation as these new concepts are being tested on highways.

In creating the future of the vehicle industry, automakers and suppliers need to be aware of how these guidelines and laws will affect the creation and adaptation of this technology. And further how these laws will affect their future legal liability. As state legislation in this area continues to emerge, NHTSA’s Policy is sure to be the first of many federal guidelines in this area.

A copy of the NTHSA Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles and associated press release can be found here.