Autonomous Vehicles in North Carolina – Buyer Beware?

The future of vehicles continues to drive toward full-automation and in 2017, North Carolina moved to establish itself as a state in which this technology can be used. In July, the General Assembly enacted a new Article 18 in Chapter 20 to regulate the operation of fully autonomous vehicles. The law provides that a “fully autonomous vehicle” is a motor vehicle equipped with an automated driving system that will not at any time require an occupant to perform any portion of the real-time operational and tactical control functions when the automated driving system is engaged. If equipment that allows an occupant to perform any of these functions is installed, it must be stowed or made unusable in such a manner that an occupant cannot assume control of the vehicle when the automated driving system is engaged.

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has defined six levels of automation in motor vehicles, ranging from “Level 0 – the human driver does everything” to “Level 5 – the automated system can perform all driving tasks, under all conditions that a human driver could perform them.” In adopting this system of classification in its model legislation for autonomous vehicles, the U.S. Department of Transportation (US DOT) has noted that fully autonomous vehicles, Levels 4 and 5, do not even require licensed drivers. Of note, Level 4 offers almost the same degree of automation as Level 5, with the caveat that the vehicle may not be able to drive automatically in some environments. This might mean the car can’t go off road, or it might mean that the car can only drive within certain, programmed, geographic boundaries (for instance, the Raleigh city limits).

In line with the US DOT’s model legislation, North Carolina’s forward-looking law attempts to provide sure legal footing for the purchase and operation of Levels 4 and 5 vehicles. But are fully autonomous vehicles legal? The 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, to which the United States is party, may be read to require people to be able to control their vehicles. Still, at least one legal scholar has concluded that under the current statutory and regulatory framework self-driving cars “are probably legal in the United States.” Depending on risk-tolerance, this may be insufficient comfort to those Tarheels mulling over the multi-thousand dollar commitment that accompanies a vehicle purchase. The 1949 legal framework of the Geneva Convention is ill-equipped to deal with the realities of autonomous vehicle use, as it was designed to define the rules of roads that handled both sheep and Suburbans. But, as binding law, it should still be read with care when attempting to prepare for the future of the automotive industry. Indeed, it may become a real concern if companies like Tesla make good on their commitment to deliver cars to the market by the close of 2017.

In light of this potential legal conflict, North Carolina would be wise to seek, publish, and promote information that explains the legal basis for operation of autonomous vehicles in the state to promote interest in acquisition of this innovative, potentially revolutionary technology.

With confidence that the state has done the legal leg-work to limit individuals’ liability, consumers will be more likely to take advantage of the clear regulation that the General Assembly has produced.