Report highlights legal, regulatory issues associated with future of automated vehicles

August 21, 2018

Tyson Fisher


A new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association highlights potential problems with automated vehicles that lawmakers and law enforcement are likely to face in the not-too-distant future, including behavioral safety issues, licensing, law enforcement training and public education.

Titled “Preparing for Automated Vehicles: Traffic Safety Issues for States,” the report addresses a future in which automated vehicles sharing driving responsibilities with humans. This combination of human and computer interaction is likely to occur for decades, according to the report.

Written for law enforcement, state highway safety offices, state departments of transportation and departments of motor vehicles, the report dives into the legal and regulatory problems that need to be addressed for Level 3, 4 and 5 automated vehicles. The following chart illustrates the Society of Automotive Engineers’ definitions of the six levels of automation:

(Courtesy of Governors Highway Safety Association)

As vehicles become more autonomous, crashes are expected to decrease as NHTSA statistics indicate that 94 percent of crashes involve driver error. However, as long as a human is behind the wheel, problems will continue to occur, the report said.

Traffic laws

One area that states will need to explore change is traffic laws. The report suggests adopting a law that authorizes driverless Level 4 and 5 technology on the roadways. Also applicable to Level 4 and 5 vehicles is legal responsibility. More specifically, laws should be amended to establish who or what is responsible for crashes or violations.

Along the lines of traffic violations, some laws may not apply to certain automated vehicles. For example, will “drivers” in Level 3-5 vehicles be held to the same distracted driving standards, including cellphone use? What about impaired driving? Will an impaired occupant in a Level 5 vehicle get charged for a DUI despite having no control of the vehicle? The report poses the questions, but does not offer solutions.

Current laws also require or assume that a licensed driver is present in the vehicle. When vehicles begin to take hold of all driving functions, will the same licensing standard apply?

One problem the Governors Highway Safety Association addresses is public education of automated vehicles, or the lack thereof. According to the report, at least nine surveys from 2016 to June 2018 reveal that the general public does not trust or are at least skeptical of automated vehicles.

Even owners of certain levels of automated vehicles are not sure of the capabilities of their vehicles. The report mentions that some drivers of Level 2 vehicles may not monitor the vehicle or road. It is suspected that the driver of a Level 2 Tesla Model S involved in a 2016 fatal crash did not properly monitor his surroundings.

Similar overestimation of a vehicle’s operation could likely occur in Levels 3-5 vehicles once they hit the market. Currently, only Level 2 vehicles are available to the travelling public. Some automakers, including Tesla and Audi, have announced plans to introduce Level 3 or 4 vehicles in the near future.

Law enforcement
The way police officers go about their job will likely change as automated vehicles become more prevalent. Many criminals have been caught through routine traffic stops. However, if every automated vehicle obeys traffic laws, traffic stops should drop dramatically. In fact, criminals could use Level 5 vehicles to transport weapons, drugs and other illegal cargo.

Then there’s the question of the logistics of pulling over a highly automated vehicle for a traffic stop. Will a Level 4 or 5 vehicle pull over for police officers? If so, how? During the period when both automated and traditional vehicles are on the road, law enforcement may need to be trained on how to identify automated vehicles.

Police officers will need to change procedures dealing with crash scenes, including disabling automated systems. In the 2016 Tesla crash, the car continued driving after striking the underbelly of a tractor-trailer, eventually crashing into a pole several yards away.

State regulations
Many state regulations dealing with vehicles assume a human driver behind the wheel. When Level 4 or 5 vehicles hit the market, those regulations may become antiquated.

A major issue is insurance. More specifically, will it be necessary to adjust insurance requirements? Who is responsible for violations and crashes? The vehicle? The software? The driver or owner? These are questions state legislators will need to discuss.

States may also find it necessary to establish a public outreach program. Not only should owners of automated vehicles know the capabilities of their vehicles, but other road users must be informed on how to interact with those vehicles.

Future of automated vehicles
The report delves into where the technology is today and where it is heading. The report’s concludes that fully self-driving vehicles will happen eventually, but not anytime soon.

According to the report, a Level 2 vehicle contains up to 100 million lines of computer code. Comparatively, a Boeing 787 has 6.7 million lines of code. Software required for a Level 5 vehicle will be extremely more complex, requiring years of research, development and innovation not yet available.

Although industry stakeholders cannot agree on a timeline, the Governors Highway Safety Association believes that Level 4 vehicles “will be in use in some settings and perhaps offered to the public” by 2022. The report also notes there is a general consensus that there will be several million Level 4 vehicles on the road by 2025 and will no longer be rare by 2030.

Predictions of percentage of vehicles sales in 2040 range from 94 percent Level 4 or 5 to 50 percent. One study cited in the report suggests that the entire vehicle fleet in the U.S. will not reach 50 percent Level 4 or 5 vehicles until the 2050s.