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 rapidly advancing 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.
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? Driverless car technology promises to be heavily regulated, not only by states, but federally by the NHTSA. Although there are no specific federal regulations yet, a patchwork of state laws is forming.
Nevada, California, and Florida already have passed laws governing driverless vehicles. Michigan is currently considering legislation. Governor Rick Synder (Michigan) in his January State of the State address called for Michigan to join other states in allowing self-driving vehicle research on the state’s roads. Michigan Senate Bill 169 was introduced on February 7, 2013. Michigan’s proposed bill allows for the testing of automated vehicles on the state’s roads provided there is a human operator in the vehicle to monitor performance, and if necessary, intervene. The Michigan legislation also exempts the vehicle manufacturer from civil liability for damages resulting from the conversion of the vehicle into an automated vehicle by another company or product. Florida’s law also similarly exempts vehicle manufactures from liability. In contrast, the laws in California and Nevada are silent as to vehicle manufacturer liability. In creating the future of the vehicle industry, automakers and suppliers need to be aware of how these laws will affect their liability in the future.