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Self-Driving Vehicles: Full Speed Ahead on New Laws and Regulations


Recent Happenings in APRM
January 2014

Self-driving or autonomous vehicle technology continues to develop rapidly. And as the technology continues to gain speed, new laws and rules are being enacted to attempt to ensure that these vehicles are introduced safely. As of now, most of the legal and regulatory developments for autonomous vehicles have occurred at the state level. Continuing the trend, two states, Michigan and California, recently made major strides in further regulating the technology.

In December 2013, the Michigan legislature near-unanimously passed a bill authorizing the testing of autonomous vehicles. Having called for the passage of such a law during his State of the State Address at the beginning of 2013, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder quickly signed the bill into law. Michigan joins Nevada, California, Florida, and the District of Columbia as the latest state (or district) to enact a law addressing the use of autonomous vehicles.

The Michigan bill expressly prohibits the operation of an automated vehicle in automatic mode, except as authorized for testing purposes. The Michigan bill also includes an exemption from civil liability for vehicle manufacturers for damages resulting from a third party's conversion of the vehicle into an automated vehicle, unless the alleged defect was present in the vehicle when it was manufactured.

The other new key development at the state level was the release of California's proposed regulations for autonomous vehicles. The proposed regulations focus on how autonomous vehicle manufacturers must submit evidence of financial responsibility in the required amount of $5 million, the process for applying for a permit to test autonomous vehicles, and the necessary qualifications and training for autonomous vehicle test drivers. Under the proposal, a test driver would have to either be in physical control or capable of taking over control of the vehicle at all times. The proposed regulations also require the vehicle manufacturer: (i) to report all accidents involving the operation of the vehicles on public roads within ten days, and (ii) to provide an annual report of all instances where the autonomous technology was required to be disengaged during testing because of an imminent safety threat.   

The federal government also continues to monitor the development of autonomous vehicle technology. In November 2013, a subcommittee of the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee held a hearing on how autonomous vehicles will shape the future of surface transportation. During the hearing, ranking minority member Eleanor Holmes Norton, representing the District of Columbia, argued that as autonomous cars continue to be engineered, the government will learn from experience what regulations are needed. NHTSA Administrator David Strickland, who recently resigned from the agency, agreed with this sentiment and further observed that the agency would likely shift from imposing performance standards, which are not as useful for electronic systems, to process standards to avoid stifling innovation.

While the testing of fully autonomous vehicles is ongoing, NHTSA remains focused on the developments in this new technology, particularly vehicle to vehicle communications and crash avoidance technologies. NHTSA is also focusing on less comprehensive types of automation or function-specific automation. For example, NHTSA had planned to announce decisions by the end of 2013 on whether to regulate or even mandate brakes that automatically engage if a vehicle detects that a crash is about to occur. While the year ended without an announcement, the agency confirmed that it continues to deliberate and will decide how to proceed soon.

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For more information, please contact the professional(s) listed below, or your regular Crowell & Moring contact.

Daniel T. Campbell
Partner – Washington, D.C.
Phone: +1 202.624.2544

Cheryl A. Falvey
Partner – Washington, D.C.
Phone: +1 202.624.2675