Are Driverless Cars Legal?

The autonomous vehicle industry has been given its first Federal blessing Friday morning. The Department of Transportation is recognizing that it must work alongside technology companies and carmakers if it wants regulations and laws to have a hope of keeping up with driverless cars. But the outstanding question still on every drivers' mind: are these vehicles actually legal? 

While not condoning the use of fully driverless cars, the DOT issued a non-binding policy statement to states, advising them to use driverless cars for testing only. The DOT also stressed that some forms of autonomy in vehicles can save lives, like speed adjustment, lane-centering and driver monitoring to watch for dangers like falling asleep at the wheel. 

As it stands, driverless cars are not fully legal, but they're also not illegal. It depends on the state, the level of autonomy in question and the various regulatory layers that stretch from a state-enforced law to a Federal one. 

The Legislative Puzzle Behind Driverless Cars

First of all, the decision of whether to allow driverless cars on the road is not up to the Federal government. States have the power to set driving laws, like the age requirement for a driver's license and the range of penalties for driving while talking on your cellphone. 

Because of this state power, California, Nevada and Florida have all legalized the use of fully autonomous cars in the last two years. It's those laws that make it legal for Google employees to cruise down to Mountain View without their hands on the wheel. In the case of Nevada, driverless vehicles are specifically licensed one-by-one by the state with a special license plate and a requirement that at least two people, one in the driver's seat, be in the car at all times. 

That's not to say that a company like Google couldn't test a driverless car in another state. New York, for instance, does not have any laws on the books that say using a driverless car is explicitly illegal, though it wouldn't be smart to take an autonomous Prius to the streets of Brooklyn, considering the liabilities involved if a crash occurs. In fact, for every other state in the U.S., driverless cars are not technically illegal because no law says cars must have drivers.

So where does the Federal government fit in? The DOT, which oversees the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) agency that issued the policy statement Friday morning, is the governmental body that manages a number of regulations, like vehicle safety and fuel economy standards, that currently keep companies like Toyota and Ford from selling a street-legal consumer model of an autonomous car. 

But while a fully driverless car is technically not available to consumers right now, different levels of autonomy are present in every modern vehicle and exist solely because of regulatory loopholes that don't take into account the vast levels of sophistication humming under the hoods of many software-equipped cars. Some of these technologies include adaptive cruise-control, which automatically alters speed depending on your proximity to other vehicles and lane-assist systems that, while not physically moving the car for you, alert drivers and suggest ways to drive safer. And future models of Mercedes-Benz vehicles will include auto-braking systems to prevent potential collisions. 

Given these advancements and the occasionally anachronistic laws on the books that date back to the time of horse-drawn carriages, the NHTSA policy statement was a two-fold move. It both publicly recognized government regulations are being far outpaced by technological advancements, but also acknowledged the government is willing to take it step by step to ensure that the ultimate goal - to increase driver safety and efficiency - is met within reasonable limits. 

The final verdict: “Self-driving vehicle technology is not yet at the stage of sophistication or demonstrated safety capability that it should be authorized for use by members of the public for general driving purposes,” the statement read. Also included were recommendations that states begin drafting up special licenses and carmakers consider the easiest way to implement and place a feature that would quickly switch from an autonomous to driver-control mode. 

The Pace Of Autonomous Advancement 

The commonly repeated timetable for driverless cars to hit the market is within the next decade, which poses a siginficiant legal hurdle for lawmakers and car manufacturers alike. While Google may be covering all the bases required to convince people a driverless car is safe - including its significant lobbying efforts to get laws on the books like it did in Nevada - it doesn't mean that the DOT will easily wave the green flag for Ford, Toyota, GM and the handful of other companies who are currently developing autonomous technology for their product lines. 

Without a significant joint effort from states, technology companies, carmakers and Federal legislative bodies, the future of autonomous cars will remain cloudy. All of the confusing layers of bureaucracy and the technology vs. government back-and-forths seem to hide a central question: driverless may be safer, but does the public really want to adopt them? 

According to a recent Cisco report on the consumer experience within the automotive industry, the answer is yes, mostly. 57% of global consumers trust driverless cars, the report cites. The trust is heavily weighted in emerging markets like Brazil, India, and China, but still comes in at 60% for the U.S. 

So it seems that Google and others have done a solid job convincing people that a driverless car is a good idea - after all, only two recorded crashes of the Google Prius included one where a driver was manually controlling it and another where the vehicle was rear-ended by another driver. With the Federal government keeping a watchful, but encouraging eye, on the market, regular drivers can only sit and wait for the laws to match the technology, presumably in traffic while Larry Page chides us for not using our time efficiently

 

Image courtesy of Flickr user jurvetson