Legal Corner: Autonomous Vehicles

Christina Estes-Werther, League General Counsel

Have you seen a self-driving car in your neighborhood? These vehicles have been spotted in Chandler when Google introduced its self-driving car this year. As more autonomous vehicles begin sharing the road with traditional motorists, a number of practical, safety and legal questions arise. This article will discuss some of these questions and highlight the recent guidance issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

What is an Autonomous Vehicle?
An autonomous vehicle is a vehicle that operates steering, acceleration, braking and other vehicle functions without driver input. Autonomous vehicles are known by several names: driverless cars, self-driving cars, robotic cars, or highly automated vehicles. Instead of drivers, these vehicles utilize sensors and cameras to detect the surroundings in order to navigate the roadways and avoid other vehicles, bicyclists, pedestrians and objects.

Several companies and manufacturers are engaged in driverless vehicle market such as Google and Uber and have test vehicles on the road. Additionally, Ford and Tesla have recently announced their intentions to enter into this field.

Impact on Cities and Towns
Although autonomous vehicles are in the testing stages, more of these vehicles may soon be sharing the road with traditional drivers, which leads to many questions about how these vehicles will impact cities and towns. An autonomous vehicle relies on specialized sensors to safely "drive" the vehicle, which requires clear views of street signs, signals, and lane markings. This may lead to additional considerations regarding road maintenance, and understanding how these vehicles will navigate around construction projects that cause roadblocks and between jurisdictions with different traffic signal laws.

As these vehicles become more prevalent, cities and towns may want to consider how autonomous vehicles fit within their future planning and infrastructure objectives, including their public transportation needs. With more autonomous vehicles on the road there are those who believe it will reduce traffic congestion based on the premise that these vehicles may be able to calibrate their systems and allow the vehicles to drive closer together saving time and space.

Another consideration for cities and towns is the question about liability when a driverless car is involved in an accident. Who is liable if two self-driving vehicles are in an accident or the accident is between a self-driving vehicle and a traditional motorist? Or if a self-driving car hits a street light or other stationary object? While there are no definitive answers, the vehicle's software may be seen as the "driver" in driverless cars. This situation leads to more questions for the insurance industry about how to insure these vehicles and apportion fault.

While all of these topics may not immediately materialize, these vehicles are already in use in Arizona. As this technology develops and its use increases, it is important to be aware of the issues that may need to be addressed.

Federal Policy
In September 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA") issued a policy document for "highly automated vehicles" and specified that it exercises the same authority over these types of vehicles as traditional vehicles, including the ability to recall vehicles or equipment for safety purposes and to educate the public about this new form of transportation.

The NHTSA has defined various categories to determine how to approach future regulation of this industry:
  • Level 0: The driver is in full control of the vehicle.
  • Level 1: The automated system partially assists the driver.
  • Level 2: The automated system and the driver conduct parts of the driving task with the driver monitoring the environment.
  • Level 3: The automated system conducts parts of the driving task and monitoring the environment with the driver being available to take immediate control of the vehicle.
  • Level 4: The automated system conducts parts of the driving task and monitoring the environment with no need for human intervention although the automated system can only operate in limited environments and conditions.
  • Level 5: The automated system can perform all driving tasks a driver can perform.
The NHTSA policy applies to Levels 3-5, which all allow the automated system to monitor the driving environment. The policy directs companies on collecting data for testing purposes and developing safety metrics; protecting consumer privacy; conducting detailed safety analysis and implementation; protecting against cybersecurity attacks; developing a process to measure and improve the interaction between the automated system and the driver; educating and training consumers about the system; and discussing ethical considerations, including how to adapt to varied laws. This is a lengthy list of issues that will require more discussion and analysis from the manufacturers, regulators and the public to determine the role of these vehicles in our daily lives. More guidance and regulations will likely be disseminated as more of these vehicles begin to "drive" on our roadways.

Autonomous vehicles offer an exciting new means of transportation for the entire population and provide an additional benefit for the disabled and elderly who may be limited in their transportation options. As more of these vehicles share our roads, it will be important for cities and towns to consider the benefits and the disadvantages that arise from the use of these vehicles and be ready to adapt to this new technology.

For more information about the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, visit, click here.

League of Arizona Cities and Towns
1820 W. Washington St.
Phoenix, AZ  85007
Phone: 602-258-5786
Fax: 602-253-3874

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