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Autonomous Vehicles: Legal Issues Moving From the Drawing Board to a Roadway Near You

Posted by Robert E. Heyman | Mar 18, 2021 | 0 Comments

       Like the Jetsons' microwave oven and wristwatch sized TV screens first seen worn by Dick Tracy, "autonomous" or self-driving cars appear ready to make the leap from  science-fiction to everyday reality. However, while the technology has been pushed hard by the automotive industry, both well-publicized glitches and the Covid-19 pandemic have slowed the transformation from the test track to Main Street, USA. As recently as 2018, driverless taxis were predicted to be deployed in large numbers by 2021. Currently, a single fleet of Chrysler Pacifica vans operated by the ride-share company "Waymo" are in experimental use in Phoenix, AZ.

       Florida, hoping to lure developers of autonomous technology from California, passed Florida Statute 316.85 in 2019 which prohibits constraints on the development and use of fully autonomous technology in vehicles, stating: " a fully autonomous vehicle may operate in this state regardless of whether a human operator is physically present". The law also makes provisions for special traffic lanes for such vehicles, prohibits local authorities from imposing additional taxes and fees. It also makes texting and hand held phones lawful for the occupants of fully automated vehicles.

        The SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) has developed standards for the different degrees of motor vehicle automation. The scale is as follows:

         0: no automation/ all driver controlled;

         1: adaptive cruise control

         2: partial traffic assist (lane change warning; auto braking)

         3: conditional automation (asks for driver assist with navigation)

         4: high automation ( limited to certain roads)

         5: full automation ( no driver involvement)                                       

       Given the negative publicity generated from a number of crashes (and one death of a pedestrian), the introduction of fully autonomous vehicles remains a few years in the future. That being said, pressure is being placed on both Congress and state legislatures by the automotive industry to restrict the public's legal remedies should they be injured by a self-driving vehicle. Their lobbyists have proposed that legislation should be passed by Congress to establish a nationwide procedure. This would pre-empt the individual states' ability to fashion their own laws. It would also most likely eliminate the right to a jury trial, which ARE currently afforded in motor vehicle negligence cases. At  the state level, the push has been to force litigants to submit to arbitration, further limiting an injured party's right to a jury trial.

       Both victims' advocacy groups and plaintiffs' lawyers associations are vigorously attacking these suggestions as unconstitutional and overly protective of an industry which needs no such protection. Expect this debate to continue until such time as the Uber vehicle of the near future shows up (minus a steering wheel) to pick up its passengers. 

About the Author

Robert E. Heyman

Bio Robert E. Heyman was born in Providence, RI, and grew up in Barrington, RI. He graduated from Barrington High School in 1974, and earned the rank of Eagle Scout. Following high school graduation, Mr. Heyman attended Northfield-Mt. Hermon Academy in Northfield, MA and thereafter attended co...


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