NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

How to Regulate Driverless Cars

April 29, 2014

The rise of the driverless car poses new challenges for vehicle and safety regulations, says Marc Scribner, a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

With human error as a crash factor in 90 percent of automobile accidents, the dawn of the driverless car (also called autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars) has great potential to reduce crashes. It also offers the possibility of increased mobility for those who cannot drive cars themselves -- the disabled and the elderly.

Scribner divides driverless car policy issues into two main categories: legality and safety. Addressing the first issue, Scribner asks, are driverless cars even legal?

  • Florida, Nevada, California, Washington, D.C., and Michigan have each passed laws specifically upholding the legality of autonomous vehicles.

  • New York's law restricts the operation of these cars to licensed drivers, who must have one hand on the steering wheel at all times. California requires a licensed driver in the driver's seat.

  • For states that have not explicitly addressed the issue, Scribner contends that driverless cars are probably legal in most jurisdictions.

Addressing the second issue, Scribner notes that companies like Google will need to demonstrate to regulators that their self-driven cars are safer than manually-driven cars with 99 percent confidence in order to expand beyond the testing phase. One of the major safety issues is the ability of a car to determine outcomes, dictating precisely how a driverless car will crash. Will it veer one direction (guaranteeing a severe crash with one car) or another (guaranteeing a moderate crash with two cars)? Or will it try to avoid the crash altogether, even though attempting to avoid the crash may carry a more serious, and more likely, risk of injury?

  • The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which regulates vehicle safety, has established a five tier system for classifying automated cars, ranging from Level 0 (no automation) to Level 4 (full self-driving automation).

  • No car has been developed that fits in Level 4.

  • Google's self-driving car is classified as Level 3 (limited self-driving automation), which means that the driver can give full control of the vehicle in some situations but can retake manual control as well.

Scribner cautions lawmakers against overregulating these new vehicles. If, in fact, they are safer, then government should pass laws that encourage their development, not squash innovation through regulation and legislation.

Source: Marc Scribner, "Self-Driving Regulation," Competitive Enterprise Institute, April 23, 2014.


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