Update On D.C.’s Driverless Car Legalization Legislation

by Marc Scribner on January 4, 2013 · 2 comments

in Mobility, Regulation, Tech & Telecom

In November, I noted in The Washington Post and here on Open Market that a bill introduced in the D.C. Council contained two dangerously flawed provisions and another unnecessary and overcautious provision. Basically, the original bill 1) nonsensically mandated that autonomous vehicles operate using alternative fuels, 2) established a special tax that would further reduce consumer purchases, and 3) required that a licensed driver be in the driver’s seat of the vehicle during autonomous operation, which is unnecessary and will restrict potential testing and functionality (admittedly, this is far less severe than the first two).

Good news! The bill was amended with the most troubling provisions (1 and 2) removed [PDF] and it unanimously passed its final reading before the Council on December 18.

D.C. will soon join Nevada, Florida, and California as jurisdictions that have explicitly legalized autonomous vehicles. There are few laws and regulations that explicitly ban the operation of autonomous vehicles in the United States, making them technically legal virtually everywhere provided a licensed driver is in the driver’s seat. But these legalization efforts are important to both send a positive signal to potential developers and establish a framework to address public policy and legal issues that will arise as consumers begin to adopt autonomous vehicles. Bryant Walker Smith, perhaps the foremost expert on the law as it relates to autonomous vehicles, recently authored a fascinating paper that explores these issues in great detail. For those who want a brief overview, see Smith’s article in New Scientist.

Lee January 11, 2013 at 11:39 am

I respectfully disagree with you #3 comment on the “required that a licensed driver…” All vehicles with autonomous operations are still “test,” not “commerically approved for general public,” vehicles as others of different test operations that are required to have at least one human driver. That is the reason that all three other states that already legalized the vehicles on their public roads required the human driver in the car. I also have not seen any legal professionals related to this area, including Mr. Smith you mentioned, who did not assert the strong and utlimate responsibilty of the manufacturers that put the autonomous vehicles on the roads.

Marc Scribner January 11, 2013 at 3:19 pm


California and D.C.’s were the only bills with the explicit driver-seat rule. Florida’s is much more vague and Nevada’s doesn’t mention driver control. The point is that these laws should be designed so that they provide for the consumer release of autonomous vehicles without resulting in innovation-killing over-regulation.


Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: