It’s no secret that the “race is on” among auto manufacturers to develop truly “self-driving” or “autonomous” cars.  Simply visit your local dealer’s showroom and you’ll see that many vehicles already can be equipped with options that will brake, accelerate, and even steer the vehicle without driver input under certain conditions.  Indeed, it will not be long until a major car maker brings a fully automated vehicle to the market.  Of course, in addition to a relaxed commute, this new frontier promises a host of legal and regulatory questions.  In what can only be characterized as a “bold move,” the President and CEO of Volvo Car Group recently announced that it will accept all liability when its vehicles are operating in autonomous mode.

Volvo’s announcement is the first of its kind and is perhaps unsurprising given the company’s legendary history of safety advancements.  (This is the same company that previously announced its long-term safety vision of nobody being seriously injured or killed in a new Volvo by 2020).  Of course, questions about liability in the event of a self-driving car crash are not the only ones that will need to be worked out.  More automation invariably means more electronics; and more electronics raises concerns about potential third-party “hackers” trying to take control of a vehicle’s autonomous features.  And, as of now, there is only the proverbial “patchwork” of regulatory guidance on automated cars.

At the federal level, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is responsible for developing, setting, and enforcing Federal motor vehicle safety standards and regulations for motor vehicles. Back in 2013, NHTSA issued a statement of policy on automated vehicles that addresses three topics: developments in automated driving and the levels of automation defined by NHTSA; an overview of NHTSA’s automated research program; and recommended principles that States may wish to apply as part of their considerations for driverless vehicle operation, especially with respect to testing and licensing.   Notably, the policy states that “[a]t this point, it is too soon to reach conclusions about the feasibility of producing a vehicle that can safely operate in a fully automated (or ‘driverless’) mode in all driving environments and traffic scenarios.”  It further notes that “[f]urther research is needed to fully understand the technical and human factors issues implicated by self-driving vehicles” and that the “guidance is therefore provisional and subject to reconsideration and revision as appropriate, especially before any potential regulatory action – which must appropriately balance the need to ensure motor vehicle safety with the flexibility to innovate.”

At the State level, the National Conference of State Legislatures recently provided an overview of the status of autonomous vehicle legislation.  It notes that, in 2015, six states and the District of Columbia enacted legislation and 15 states introduced legislation relating to self-driving vehicles.

It is against this backdrop that Volvo coupled its “liability acceptance” with a push for comprehensive self-driving regulations at the federal level.  As Volvo’s CEO recently explained, “[t]he U.S. risks losing its leading position [in autonomous driving] due to the lack of federal guidelines for the testing and certification of autonomous vehicles . . . Europe has suffered to some extent by having a patchwork of rules and regulations. It would be a shame if the U.S. took a similar path to Europe in this crucial area.” He further noted that the lack of federal oversight makes it difficult for automakers to design, produce, and test self-driving cars.

So where does this leave us?  We are looking at a common occurrence — where technology gets out in front of the law.  We can expect more and more auto manufacturers to get closer and closer to fully autonomous cars — and a concomitant call for more regulation.  It will be interesting (indeed, exciting) to watch how this develops and see the various positions that regulatory bodies, state legislators, and the industry take.  As NHTSA itself stated, “America is at a historic turning point for automotive travel. Motor vehicles and drivers’ relationships with them are likely to change significantly in the next ten to twenty years, perhaps more than they have changed in the last one hundred years.”