Is operating a driverless car legal? With Tesla, Audi, and Cadillac all set to roll out vehicles featuring autonomous functions over the next year—in a legal climate where the federal government and a majority of states lack any regulation at all—the question is difficult to address, but urgently demands an answer.
Many automakers say that if a state doesn’t expressly bar hands-free driving, it’s permitted. And legal experts agree. But they also point out that how police officers elect to actually handle driverless cars is another matter. “It’s not just what’s on the books; it’s what’s enforced,” Bryant Walker Smith, law professor at the University of South Carolina, told The New York Times. “If a police officer sees you driving down the road with no hands, he could determine that’s reckless and still give you a ticket. Individual officers have a tremendous amount of discretion.”
As regulation slowly begins its chase of the innovation that’s far ahead, some officials are pushing for more urgent movement. California and Nevada, for example, have already begun drafting consumer rules. But while determining state-by-state whether consumers can buy and drive autonomous vehicles is important, federal action is needed to avoid a hodge-podge of regulations across the U.S. The struggle in this case, though, is defining what federal law is actually regulating. As the Times reports: federal law regulates the cars (to ensure they meet safety standards); state laws regulate the drivers—so what happens when the cars are the drivers?