Legal Problems Arising out of Highway Programs. Topic 21-01. A Look at the Legal Environment for Driverless Vehicles

The concept of a driverless car has been around for decades but until recently it has been more a dream than reality. At present, research by technology companies as well as traditional car manufacturers on how to achieve this goal is on-going and rapidly evolving. One major carmaker has announced recently it plans to introduce driverless vehicles for general sale by 2020 and others are sure to follow. Changes in transportation modes have historically been catalysts for legal change. The Interstate Commerce Commission was the first federal regulatory agency created and it was established to provide oversight over the rail industry. Railroad operation and safety depended on a new form of communication: the telegraph. Railroads were a leading factor in changing the law of torts from a strict liability standard to one based on fault. William Prosser in his Handbook of the Law of Torts observed that negligence began to be recognized as a separate tort by 1825 and that "its rise coincided in a marked degree with the Industrial Revolution ..." The introduction of automobiles in the 20th century brought profound changes to law in such areas as how to regulate new technology, licensing of drivers, reciprocity amongst states, and traffic control. All of these developments expanded the police power of the states far beyond what existed in the 19th century. See, Euclid v. Ambler, (United States Supreme Court 1920) In the 21st century, with the introduction of driverless vehicles, there is a high probability that we will experience similar technology driven changes to our legal system. Cutting edge developments in driverless vehicles; vehicle to vehicle; and vehicle to roadway communications are expected to have a similar transformative impact on the legal environment. Technology in this field is developing rapidly and there is a need to identify the legal and regulatory framework necessary for its implementation. This research paper should provide an overview of the legal issues generated by these technology advances. The paper should include a brief review of the legal changes posed by the advent of new technologies (e.g. rail, automobile, aviation, and information technologies), in order to lay a framework as to how change occurs and what lessons may be learned from past developments. The research paper should also provide transportation officials with basic information as to how driverless and connected vehicle technologies may operate. In addition, the paper should review the nascent rules and protocols being developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and states such as California, Nevada, and Florida (to the extent they are available); analyze the challenges these agencies are experiencing in their efforts to accommodate new transportation environments; and develop hypothetical scenarios on how driverless cars will impact the development, maintenance, finance, and regulation of highways. Some of the questions that should be explored are: how will the system initially operate with a mix of cars driven by drivers and those autonomously operated? Will driverless vehicles require licensed drivers? Will there be a need for changes to traffic control devices? What will be the role of traffic engineers? What is the appropriate role for regulators? Will traffic design speed be impacted in a manner different from that of the fixed standard currently employed? What will be the role of traffic enforcement and how will enforcement codes need to be revised? In the event of a system malfunction, how will liability be determined and apportioned? Must there be national standards adopted? The researcher is encouraged to suggest and address additional issues relating to use and liability. An attorney is required to be a substantial part of this research effort. Multidisciplinary teams are permitted and encouraged. The status is as follows: A proposer has been selected, and contract negotiations are currently underway.


  • English


  • Status: Proposed
  • Funding: $60000.00
  • Contract Numbers:

    Project 20-06, Topic

  • Sponsor Organizations:

    Federal Highway Administration

    1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
    Washington, DC  United States  20590

    American Association of State Highway & Transportation Officials (AASHTO)

    444 North Capitol Street, NW, Suite 225
    Washington, DC  United States  20001

    National Cooperative Highway Research Program

    Transportation Research Board
    500 Fifth Street, NW
    Washington, DC  United States  20001
  • Project Managers:

    McDaniel, James

  • Start Date: 20141113
  • Expected Completion Date: 0
  • Actual Completion Date: 0
  • Source Data: RiP Project 37624

Subject/Index Terms

Filing Info

  • Accession Number: 01543462
  • Record Type: Research project
  • Source Agency: Transportation Research Board
  • Contract Numbers: Project 20-06, Topic
  • Files: TRB, RiP
  • Created Date: Nov 15 2014 1:00AM