Where are driverless cars actually legal?

Update on July 28, 2014 – Iowa county legalized driverless cars

There was plenty of interest around our infographic of the states where Tesla is able to sell cars. This led us to consider other infographics we could design. The biggest opportunity, it seemed, was where driverless cars AKA self-driving cars AKA autonomous cars are legal.

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Driverless cars are all the rage in the news cycle right now, especially after Google revealed this video of its autonomous vehicle driving around with no input from humans. Even if the driver wished to override the cars computer system and steer into that coffee shop on the way to work, he couldn’t. That’s because there’s no steering wheel. Or brake pedal. Or accelerator. Just a computer system linked to a drivetrain that gets you to where you want to go.

For many people, the idea of having a car drive itself while its occupants relax, read the paper or even sleep is a revolutionary concept. It frees people from the burdens and responsibilities of having to drive. For others, the driverless car brings about a fear of relying too heavily on technology that seems susceptible to failure or an end to car culture. Regardless of your opinion, the important question is, are they even legal?

Now here’s where it gets interesting. In terms of automotive laws, anything not clearly prohibited is technically allowed. At the time most laws were written, self-driving vehicles were a futuristic concept never thought to become a reality. As a result, no state has a law that explicitly prevents the use of a self-driving vehicle.


But do the operations of an autonomous vehicle adhere to the existing laws set in place by state governments? Probably. This might seem a bit vague, but then again so are the automotive laws that govern what is allowed on America’s highways. To the history books we go!

International Road Traffic Laws

Beginning in the early 20th century, international laws were written to create a standard of motor vehicle regulations.  The 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic established fundamental rules, one of the most interesting involving the definition of drivers’ responsibilities. Article 8 requires that every car have a driver who “at all times… [is] able to control it”.

Do cars that can drive themselves follow the law? According to Law.com, the term ‘control’ is defined as “the power to direct, manage, oversee and/or restrict the affairs, business or assets of a person or entity.” This interpretation makes it sound as if any user of an autonomous car is technically “in control” since they are directing the car where to take them. The wording of article 8 of the convention also states that the operator must be able to control it, not that they have to remain in control. Operating the vehicle without constant input from the driver, technically speaking, would not be violating the laws set by the Convention in 1949.

The convention of 1949 was amended by the Vienna Convention of 1968 and once again in 2011. The amendment stated that driver assistance programs do not contradict rules established in article 8 as long as the system is “overridable at any time.” This cleared up some confusion on how to interpret the vague language of 1949, but still leaves many questions unanswered.

Back to the Present

So, how do all these laws apply to cars such as Google’s new prototype? Interestingly, New York is the only state that has a law that states “no person shall operate a motor vehicle without having one hand…on the steering mechanism at all times when the motor vehicle is in motion.” Without even having a steering wheel, this law would technically be broken by Google’s fully autonomous car.

wrench steering wheel image

However, certain states have decided to explicitly allow the testing of autonomous vehicles to clear up confusion about what is permitted on U.S roadways. As you can see in the infographic above, California, Florida, Michigan, Nevada and the District of Columbia have all passed legislation that allows autonomous cars to be tested on public roads. There are however, some stipulations. These states require special license plates, insurance packages and driver certifications. More importantly, a driver must remain behind the wheel to assume control of the vehicle if the computer system fails.

Then again, there is still a legal gray area. Nothing prohibits the use of a driverless car and many of the legal issues still orbit the idea who remains responsible when no person is in control.

Self-Driving Cars You Can Buy Today

In an interview with Atlanta News Radio, Mojo Founder and CEO Paul Nadjarian points out that autonomous features like ABS brakes have existed in cars for decades. Furthermore, some car manufacturers have cars that can drive themselves (to an extent) on the road already. Take the new Mercedes-Benz S550, for example. Not only can it navigate a turnabout, it can avoid pedestrians and obstacles in the road, control its steering, braking and acceleration. While you can’t tell the S550 where to go and have it take you there, it can assume total control of the vehicle while driving down the road.


Then there’s cars like the 2015 Acura MDX and 2014 Lincoln MKZ which offer adaptive cruise control systems that automatically control the speed of the car to keep up with surrounding traffic. They’re also outfitted with lane keep assist technology that will prevent the vehicle from leaving its lane.

Other forms of technology utilize sensors to alert the driver when there is another vehicle in its blind spot like the Volvo XC60 or Cadillac SRX.  The rapid increase in vehicle technology and varying levels of autonomy has prompted the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration to develop the five categories of vehicle automation.

It’s obvious the technology is quickly approaching, but the issue is if the laws can keep up. In an interview with Reuters, CEO of Nissan Renault Carlos Ghosn stated, “The problem isn’t technology, it’s legislation, and the whole question of responsibility that goes with these cars moving around and especially who is responsible once there is no longer anyone inside.” As most of us know, passing legislation never happens quickly and this might be the biggest roadblock self-driving cars are up against.

No Outlet

The S550 shows that self-driving vehicles are a reality and cars are becoming more than capable of reading road conditions and responding to them, sometimes without any driver input. Although it might not be explicitly legal, it’s not illegal until laws are clearly written that define what is accepted and what is not. Until then, the question as to whether or not autonomous cars are legal has no solid answer.


This brings us to a dead end. Until laws are specific to regulation of a fully autonomous vehicle, loopholes and technicalities, such as New York’s “hand on the wheel” law, remain the only structure governing their existence. However, the recent stir revolving around Google’s unveiling of their prototype will definitely prompt legislative action. The decisions by lawmakers will either pave the way or put a screeching halt on the future of the self-driving automobile.

Thanks for reading!

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Written by Johncarlo Pecorari

Infographic by Gabriel Gross

Photo source: The Verge, ABC, Review Cars, Nebraska Weather Photos