driverless law USA




Autonomous cars law in the US is determined state by state and federal involvement is rather low. On federal level the first important guideline to autonomous driving was raised in 2013 by The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). It released a Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles on May 30th 2016 including its plans for research on related safety issues and recommendations for states related to the testing, licensing, and regulation of autonomous cars.


The report mentions already implemented rules like electronic stability control on heavy vehicles in level 1 automation. Looking to the future the NHTSA will include level 2 to 4 automation research on driver training or standardized autonomous system tests.

In the recommendation to the states the NHTSA says it does not believe that self-driving vehicles are currently ready to be driven on public roads for purposes other than testing and anything above level 3 automation is unsafe. Practical tips towards public road testing are the following:

  • Ensure that the Driver Understands How to Operate a Self-Driving Vehicle Safely
  • Ensure that On-road Testing of Self-driving Vehicles Minimizes Risks to Other Road Users
  • Limit Testing Operations to Roadway, Traffic and Environmental Conditions Suitable for the Capabilities of the Tested Self-Driving Vehicles
  • Establish Reporting Requirements to Monitor the Performance of Self-Driving Technology during Testing

In regards to safety measures the NTHSA does not recommend that states attempt to establish safety standards but instead say the following:

  • Ensure that the Process for Transitioning from Self-Driving Mode to Driver Control is Safe, Simple, and Timely
  • Self-Driving Test Vehicles Should Have the Capability of Detecting, Recording, and Informing the Driver that the System of Automated Technologies has Malfunctioned
  • Ensure that Installation and Operation of any Self-Driving Vehicle Technologies Does not Disable any Federally Required Safety Features or Systems
  • Ensure that Self-Driving Test Vehicles Record Information about the Status of the Automated Control Technologies in the Event of a Crash or Loss of Vehicle Control

And lastly, the NHTSA does not recommend that states authorize the operation of self-driving vehicles for purposes other than testing.




The actual autonomous cars law in the US is decided at state level. And there are likely to keep this position in the near future. That is why from 2016 it is legal in 8 American states, plus the District of Columbia, to test fully driverless cars on public roads. California, Michigan, Florida, Nevada, Arizona, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Utah all have approved multi bills approving fully self-driving test projects or driving an autonomous cars in vehicle with the ability to manually take over.


Many other states are still ‘under consideration’ and no state has issued an outright ban on driverless cars, but old laws prohibit a user of driving it. New York, for example, has a 1971 law requiring drivers to keep one hand on the wheel. The actual terms differ state-to-state (that is why the pressure groups on federal where founded in the first place).


Testing the water

Autonomous cars law in the US is still quite conservative and strict. A few states are letting driverless cars on public roads, but only as part of carefully controlled tests. California was the first to approve driverless testing on September 16th of 2014. Since then the state allows testing autonomous vehicles not equipped with steering wheels, brake pedals, accelerators, or operators inside, at specified locations and speeds under 35 miles per hour.


In most states a specific driving licence is required but not everywhere. Florida for example does not prohibit or specifically regulate the testing or operation of autonomous technology in motor vehicles on public roads. Specifying that “a person who possesses a valid driver license may operate an autonomous vehicle in autonomous mode”. The state of Tennessee even prohibits local governments from prohibiting the use of a vehicle solely on the basis of it being equipped with autonomous technology. Utah follows a different approach. The state authorizes only their own department of transportation to conduct a connected vehicle testing program.

Early adapters

In 2011 Nevada introduced a texting-while-driving law that declares it totally legal to use your phone in the car so long as the vehicle is in autonomous mode. But the first state to actually move past the testing phase was Florida. In July 2016 it became the first in the nation to allow anyone with a valid driver’s license to operate an autonomous car. Also Michigan wants to take it a step further. In September 2016 is raised a bill to legalize fully autonomous driving in cars without steering wheels or brake pedals. The bill passed Senate with a stunning 36 in favour and none against. Now it is up to the House to decide.

The non-deciders

The majority of states have not yet decided on their driving futures, either because early bills have died or because they are following a wait-and-see approach. But just because a state does not have a law allowing autonomous cars does not mean these vehicles are explicitly banned. Also here pressure groups lead by Google, Tesla or Uber have an immense impact. Texas for example, has passed no autonomous-car laws, but that does not stop Google. The company is currently testing its vehicles in Austin with the backing of the city’s mayor, who gets his talking points on the topic from Google lobbyists.