Autonomous Cars: The Legality of Cars on Autopilot

Mercedes, BMW, Infiniti, Honda, and Volvo have produced cars that have the ability to be in a semi-autopilot mode in certain situations. Google has even produced bubble-like experimental self-driving cars that completely take the human driver out of the equation. Recently, the chief executive officer of Tesla, Elon Musk, announced that the company would introduce cars with an autopilot mode into the U.S. market this summer.

Tesla’s anticipated product would not remove human participation completely, like the Google self-driving car, but it is the first commercially available, largely autonomous vehicle. Tesla’s car would have technology that would allow drivers to transfer control to autopilot on “major roads” such as highways. The only thing required to obtain this technology is a software update in Tesla’s current Model S sedans. This is hugely exciting news for a lot of people; not having to pay attention during the commute to and from work would allow an extra hour or so for people to be productive or get some rest.

However, there are serious legal questions regarding autonomous vehicles that have yet to be answered. For example, who will be liable if the car strikes a pedestrian while on autopilot? Will it be the driver, as the owner of the car, who maintains the ultimate ability to control the vehicle? Will it be the manufacturer or programmer who developed the software that failed to detect the pedestrian? There simply are not laws covering these scenarios in most states, let along cohesive federal laws. At most, there are a few states that have passed laws declaring the legality of autonomous vehicles mainly for testing purposes, not for consumers. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released an initial policy in May of 2013, but has not developed or released any additional guidelines.

Tesla is taking a brave first step by taking the car into the market without settled regulations. The widespread development of autonomous functions in cars indicates that full autonomy is the direction technology is heading, but the legal system has not caught up to it. Google’s director of the self-driving cars, Chris Urmson, has stated that provided that the required crash-test and other safety standards are met, there are no regulatory prohibitions to autonomous vehicles. This is not because autonomous vehicles are expressly permitted, by any means; there are simply no fully developed laws or regulations tailored to the unique liability issues presented by autonomous cars. Tesla will likely be the guinea pig in the courts, and the decisions resulting from any lawsuits that arise from accidents or failures will help establish and shape the law.

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Melanie Campuano was an editor on the Michigan Telecommunications and Technology Law review from 2014 to 2015, and a member of the University  Michigan Law School class of 2016.

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