Uniform Law Commission — Making Someone Other than the Driver Responsible

As I wrote about last time, the Uniform Law Commission recently passed the Uniform Automated Operation of Vehicles Act. Today, I want to focus on Sections 5, 6, and 7 of that Act, which are titled, respectively, “Vehicle Registration,” “Automated-Driving Provider,” and “Associated Automated Vehicle.” The three sections are meant to complement each other and the generally applicable rules regarding motor vehicle registration in a state. The Comments to Section 7 give a nice synopsis of the way these three sections interact:

Existing state law generally requires the registration of a motor vehicle that is operated on a public road. If an automated vehicle qualifies as such a motor vehicle, it too must be registered. The person seeking that registration—typically the vehicle owner—must comply with all conditions of registration under existing law. Section 5 of this act adds a further condition: For the owner of an automated vehicle to register the vehicle, an automated driving provider must have designated that vehicle as an associated automated vehicle. Section 6 specifies how an entity declares that it is an automated driving provider, and Section 7 specifies how that entity then designates its associated automated vehicles. These three sections work together with existing law to ensure that a properly registered automated vehicle has a legal driver when it is under automated operation. In general, only if an automated vehicle is associated with an automated driving provider may it be registered and operated on public roads.

The Act’s comments are fairly dense, but we can work through them section by section. Under current state law, the owner of a motor vehicle must generally register that vehicle with the state according to state registration rules. The Act retains that requirement for the owner of an automated vehicles, but also adds a new condition of registration. Under Section 5, an automated vehicle may be registered only if an entity has:

(1) declared itself to be an automated driving provider (ADP) (explained in Section 6) and

(2) designated that particular automated vehicles as one of its associated automated vehicles (explained in Section 7).

The vehicle owner and the ADP do not necessarily have to be the same legal person. The vehicle owner could be an individual, and the ADP could be an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) like Ford, Honda, or Tesla. The manufacturer, or some other entity like an insurer or fleet operator, would declare themselves to be the ADP to the state, and declare the automated vehicles to be one of its associated vehicles, but the individual would own and register the car. This has the effect of “compelling” vehicle manufacturers, or some other entity, to declare themselves to be the entity legally defined as the driver for any consequences that arise from the vehicles actions on public roads. The comments to Section 6 clarify:

To become an automated driving provider, an entity must make an affirmative declaration that includes specific representations. This means that, first, an entity does not become an automated driving provider against its will and, second, not every entity can become an automated driving provider. Subsection (a) identifies three basic qualifications, at least one of which a provider must satisfy, and subsection (c) identifies four key requirements, all of which the provider must satisfy.

To qualify as an ADP, an entity must have either participated substantially in the development of the system, submitted safety self-assessments with NHTSA, or be a registered manufacturer with NHTSA. The purpose of these sections is to require registration with the state, ensuring that every automated vehicle on a state’s roads has an entity associated with it, against whom the state can credibly enforce relevant provisions of the state vehicle code.

Manufacturers are not required to register as an ADP. But they will be incentivized to declare themselves as ADP’s for the simple reason that if they do not, their customers will be unable to register or use their vehicles in a state that has adopted the Act. If customers in one state were unable to register Ford vehicles but could register Honda vehicles, then everyone in that state would buy Honda automated vehicles and nobody would buy Ford. Under Section 7, once an ADP has designated an associated automated vehicle, the association remains until the ADP is not recognized by the state agency, ceases to exist under principles of corporate law, or affirmatively withdraws the designation.

This approach is a great way to allow manufacturers of automated vehicles to select the states in which they wish to be responsible for their vehicles. If they register as an ADP in Arizona, but not New Mexico, then their customers will be able to register and drive their vehicles on the public roads in Arizona, but not New Mexico. This can allow manufacturers to choose where they accept liability for the automated features of their vehicles.

However, this could cause problems. Assuming uniform adoption of the Act (which is unlikely), if manufacturers are selective with the states where they register as ADP’s then there could be adjacent states where a manufacturer is an ADP in state X, and not in state Y. If customers in state X drive their automated vehicle across the border into state Y, there could be legal questions if the manufacturer is liable for accidents that occur in state Y, especially if they specifically chose not to register there. This could lead to geofencing at state borders, requirements that shift control back to the human driver as they cross state borders, or a whole host of other potential solutions. These solutions could also cause problems. What if a driver is asleep as the vehicle crosses into a state where that manufacturer has not registered? What if the driver overrides and continues allowing the vehicle to drive? Has liability shifted from the manufacturer to the owner given the owner’s conscious choice?

Questions of tort liability, jurisdiction over manufacturers, and technological work-arounds could abound if OEM’s are selective with their registration as ADPs. But they should be allowed to select where they want to sell their automated vehicles if they will be required to legally be identified as the responsible entity. Sections 5, 6, and 7 of the Automated Vehicle Act will likely cause much debate in states that consider adopting the Act.