My Car Lender

Home / Features / Autonomous Driving And The Law: Who’s at Fault?



Automobile laws differ from place to place, but there are some rules that are pretty much the same, no matter where you go. Of course, we’re talking legally, here. In automotive speak, the California Roll is not a sushi dish, but a so-called rolling-stop at a stop sign. Any four-year-old can tell you that “Red means ‘Stop’,” and that a full stop means everyone’s head bobs. Try that stunt in front of a police officer, especially one whose morning joe hasn’t kicked in, or a traffic camera, and you’ll find out how quickly you get a ticket. After all, the law, according to New York State Vehicle & Traffic Law, states “S 146Stop. When required means complete cessation from movement.” [italics mine] Here in Perú, on the other hand, you’ll be lucky if anyone notices you ignoring the stop sign, intersection, traffic lines, speed limits, etc.

Obviously, the law is important. For the most part, when it comes to automobiles, they keep drivers in line and set some responsibilities that keep drivers and pedestrians safe. Stopping at a crosswalk, for example, allows pedestrians a safe zone for crossing the street. Having the required minimum tire tread depth helps drivers maintain control of their vehicles in rain, snow, or on slippery road surfaces. Signaling, before a lane change or at an intersection, keeps drivers and pedestrians safe by alerting them of your intention. Driving under the influence of alcohol or distracted by your mobile phone [just as bad] is prohibited, and keeps drivers in control of their vehicles, ready to react to ever-changing road conditions.

Enter the autonomous vehicle, such as the Nissan Leaf Autonomous Drive that has recently completed some pretty impressive test-runs on public highways in Japan. This specially-modified electric vehicle can merge, maintain highway speed, change lanes, and keep up with stop-and-go traffic without any input from the driver. Eventually, Nissan Autonomous Drive could simply accept a destination from the driver, requiring no further driver input. In relation to autonomous vehicles, the question comes up, “Will some of these laws cease to have any meaning when driving is no longer by the driver, but by the vehicle?”

Distracted Driving

Another law, which has caused some controversy in recent years, has been put in place regarding distracted driving. “S 1225-d. Use of portable electronic devices…no person shall operate a motor vehicle while using any portable electronic device while such vehicle is in motion…including while temporarily stationary because of traffic, a traffic control device, or other momentary delays.” According to some studies, just talking on a mobile phone, even with a hands-free headset, is the equivalent of driving under the influence of alcohol, so it’s understandable the safety concerns that the use of portable electronic devices raises, including mobile phones, smartphones, tablets, even laptops [I have a 12V charger for my HP ProBook 4540s. Doesn’t everyone?]

Because I don’t need to actually pay attention to the road in an autonomous drive vehicle, what will I be doing? Maybe I can get some work done on my hour-long commute. After all, my laptop is connected to the office via 4G network, so I might as well get in those last few details on the presentation at 9AM, right? Maybe afterward, I can call Mother on Skype and tell her how great my new job is going, and how great the 9AM presentation is going to be. Finally, I’ll finish off those last few sips from my cappuccino while I watch a replay of last night’s game.

Suddenly, everything goes to black. I got into an accident because a car swerved in front of me, knocking me out of the lane and into a telephone pole. Who’s at fault? Was I driving distracted? Does the law apply in this case? Who am I going to sue for the damages to my car and my aching head? Of course, this really depends on the laws in the country regarding things like distracted driving, or even drunk driving.

Drunk Driving

Due to the mitigating circumstances of my accident that morning, my new boss was kind enough to move the presentation back a week until my doctors clear me to go back to work. The insurance company covered the damages to my car and, since it was totaled, I’m driving a new car this week. I even upgraded to the extended-range version so I could go visit Mother this weekend without having to worry about finding a public-access recharging station on the way.

Today’s presentation went far better than anyone expected, and we picked up a great new client on one of the biggest contracts this company has ever garnered. After hours, the boss goes to all lengths to throw a party for my team and I. I drank a little too much, maybe a lot too much. Now, when it comes to the law, can I get plastered and tell my car to take me home?

According to the law, “S 1192. …No person shall operate a motor vehicle while the person’s ability to operate such motor vehicle is impaired by the consumption of alcohol. [0.08% BAC] or…while intoxicated. [0.18% BAC]” [italics added] Here, again, the question comes up. In an autonomous drive vehicle, who is operating the vehicle?

The Future

Clearly, autonomous drive vehicles are coming, but not for a few years. From what I can tell, the law, as is typical, is far behind the technology. What new laws will have to be passed to ensure the continued safety of drivers in their autonomous vehicles, and who is ultimately responsible for them?


About the author: Benjamin Jerew


Ben Jerew is an ex-Toyota master technician and an expert in alternative fuels and hybrid/electric automotive technology. His work has been featured on,, and, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @LoneWolffe.


Recent posts in Features


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *