With Laws for Autonomous Cars, It's Pedal to the Metal

Nissan autonomous car prototype (using a Nissan Leaf electric car) exhibited at the Geneva Motor Show 2014. (Photo: Norbert Aepli, Switzerland Wikimedia) Nissan autonomous car prototype (using a Nissan Leaf electric car) exhibited at the Geneva Motor Show 2014. (Photo: Norbert Aepli, Switzerland Wikimedia)


America’s race to put “self-driving” cars on the road is expected to accelerate in 2017 as more state and federal regulators come out with rules governing their testing and operation.

Industry lawyers should get in the driver’s seat.

“You’ll see more of a partnership in the development of regulations than you have in the past,” says Christine Soares, a partner at Cozen O’Connor in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. “For carmakers, making sure they’re involved in those different task forces, either at the federal or state level, is going to be important for them.”

Autonomous vehicles aren’t just the brainchild of Tesla and Google; most of the major automakers hope to sell them in the next few years. Regulators are scrambling to keep pace with the technology. Since 2012, 10 states have enacted regulations for driverless cars, either by law or through executive orders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But the regulations aren’t all alike. Some states have required licensed drivers to be behind the wheel, some don’t. Some address testing and studies, while others govern liability.

Next year could see a push for greater consistency, especially after the U.S. National Highway Traffic Administration in September announced a set of voluntary guidelines for autonomous vehicles, including a model policy for states. There is a definite difference in the roles between the states and federal and local governments in this, but the key is because it’s a completely new frontier and a new way of looking at things, the state, local and federal governments are going to have to work together—much like they did when vehicle laws came out when automobiles were invented,” says Anne Teigen, policy specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Critics have safety concerns, despite assurances from industry leaders that autonomous vehicles would make the roads less dangerous. At least one person has died in a Tesla vehicle. The NHTSA’s safety guidelines prompted Silicon Valley entrepreneur George Holtz to halt sales of his proposed $999 self-driving device.

That said, the federal rules could be more favorable to carmakers under President-elect Donald Trump, who has vowed to reduce regulations.

And in some states, auto manufacturers already have taken a front seat. In California, a coalition led by Google and Uber have pushed back against regulations they considered too stringent and onerous. In Pennsylvania, a task force for autonomous vehicle regulations includes representatives from Uber, which already has cars on the road in Pittsburgh. Uber knows a thing or two about “breaking into the industry and defining what they are,” Soares says. “And then having the laws and regulations follow their own definition.”