U.S. DOT Issues Guidelines for Self-Driving Vehicles


By: Wes Jackson

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Transportation ushered in the long-anticipated future of transportation with guidelines for “autonomous vehicles,” or self-driving cars (available here). The policy guidance focuses primarily on “highly automated vehicles,” (“HAVs”) or those that have automated systems that actually monitor the driving environment as opposed to merely conducting some part of the driving task (such as a cruise control function). The DOT’s executive summary of the policy states that the policy “sets out an ambitious approach to accelerate the HAV revolution.”

One of the main takeaways from the guidelines is the “15 Point Safety Assessment” for manufacturers, which covers traditional automobile safety considerations like “Crashworthiness” along with new considerations unique to driverless or highly automated vehicles, such as “Object and Event Detection and Response” and “Post-Crash Behavior.” The Safety Assessment also includes an “Ethical Considerations” assessment, which will address the ethical implications that arise from programming a vehicle to make choices, for example, between the safety of its occupants or another car’s occupants. Aside from these safety guidelines, the policy also introduces a Model State Policy which, if widely adopted by the states, will lead to uniform nation-wide regulations of HAVs and avoid state-level regulatory inconsistencies that could delay widespread utilization of new automated vehicle technology.

It may go without saying, but the promise of driverless vehicles will be the biggest change in personal transportation since the invention of the motor carriage itself. But the new technology will not only change how (or if) we drive—it will also transform the existing legal framework for assigning liability when accidents occur. While it may be years before driverless cars hit the road, auto insurers, commercial carriers, and other industry participants should begin assessing how HAVs will impact the industry and steer their businesses accordingly.