Autonomous vehicles are the future as evidenced by a September software release that allows every new Tesla to become a fully self-driving vehicle.

How will motor vehicle laws adapt to the rise in this technology? In North Carolina, “the operator of a fully autonomous vehicle with automated driving system engaged is not required to be licensed to operate a motor vehicle.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-401(a). Additionally, “The person in whose name the fully autonomous vehicle is registered is responsible for a violation of this Chapter that is considered a moving violation, if the violation involves a fully autonomous vehicle.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-401(e).

The current law for autonomous vehicles places more responsibility on the owner of the vehicle and less on the “operator” (individual occupying the “driver’s seat”). Based on the current laws, North Carolina is silent regarding whether the “operator” is liable if the autonomous vehicle is involved in an accident while operating autonomously. Because the owner is responsible for moving violations, it is reasonable to believe the registered owner would be responsible for an accident while the vehicle operates autonomously.

This is similar to current laws for traditional motor vehicles where the vehicle owner, even if not involved in an accident, can be liable for damages caused by his/her vehicle. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 20-71.1(a). The difference with autonomous vehicles is whether the “operator” can be liable when the vehicle is operating autonomously and the “operator” is not controlling the vehicle.

Another potential issue is what duties will be placed on the owner and/or “operator” of the vehicle when it operates autonomously. Currently, the “operator” does not even need to have a driver’s license if the vehicle is operating autonomously. However, what if the “operator” had the time and ability to turn off the autonomous feature to avoid a potential collision? Alternatively, is the “operator” allowed to assume that the autonomous software will function correctly?

Even though autonomous software is more prevalent in non-commercial motor vehicles, it is also implemented in commercial motor vehicles. The potential for the software in commercial vehicles is ultimately for the vehicle to be driverless. However, in the interim, it is unknown how autonomous software will change the requirements for commercial vehicle operators. If the commercial vehicle engages its autonomous software, will the “operator” need a valid commercial driver’s license? Will the operator even need a driver’s license? Considering that North Carolina does not currently require an “operator” to have a driver’s license for an autonomous vehicle, it is not out of the question that a CDL may no longer be required.  Will the FMCSA guidelines and requirements change for autonomous commercial motor vehicles? At first glance, it appears that they will, but how drastically? The potential impact on commercial drivers and carriers will be addressed in future articles.

Williams Britt, wearing navy suit and yellow tie

Williams Britt
Charlotte, NC