You Have Heard of the Uniform Commercial Code — Here Comes the Uniform Automated Operation of Vehicles Act

The Uniform Law Commission (“ULC”) is a non-governmental body composed of state-selected lawyers who oversee the preparation of “Uniform Laws” to be proposed to the states for adoption. The group’s most well-known body of law will be familiar to any lawyer or law student who paid attention in first-year contracts: the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). Not all projects of the ULC are as successful as the UCC. In fact, many are never adopted by any state.

The ULC appointed a Drafting Committee on Highly Automated Vehicles in 2017.  The Committee recently completed an Automated Vehicles Act, titled “The Uniform Automated Operation of Vehicles Act,” which is a “uniform law covering the deployment of automated driving systems (SAE levels 3 through 5).” The Act is intended to cover a vast array of issues likely to be faced by states in the coming decades as autonomous vehicles become more ubiquitous. The ULC description of the Automated Vehicles Act states:

The Uniform Automated Operation of Vehicles Act regulates important aspects of the operation of automated vehicles.  This act covers the deployment of automated vehicles on roads held open to the public by reconciling automated driving with a typical state motor vehicle code.  Many of the act’s sections – including definitions, driver licensing, vehicle registration, equipment, and rules of the road – correspond to, refer to, and can be incorporated into existing sections of a typical vehicle code.  This act also introduces the concept of automated driving providers (ADPs) as a legal entity that must declare itself to the state and designate the automated vehicles for which it will act as the legal driver when the vehicle is in automated operation.  The ADP might be an automated driving system developer, a vehicle manufacturer, a fleet operator, an insurer, or another kind of market participant that has yet to emerge.  Only an automated vehicle that is associated with an ADP may be registered.  In this way, the Automated Operation of Vehicles Act uses the motor vehicle registration framework that already exists in states – and that applies to both conventional and automated vehicles – to incentivize self-identification by ADPs.  By harnessing an existing framework, the act also seeks to respect and empower state motor vehicle agencies.

The final version of the act can be downloaded here.

This Act is a step in the right direction. It does much of the leg-work for state legislatures to exempt autonomous vehicles from a variety of state laws by providing language which can be easily inserted into various state vehicle codes. States can choose to enact certain parts of the Uniform Act, picking and choosing the sections or phrases they want and discarding the rest. This is beneficial because it will likely mean more states will enact some form of AV exemption. However, it also means there could be substantial variation between states that adopt some but not all of the Act. The passage of a Uniform Act by the ULC does not ensure there will be uniform adoption.

The act is not very long, only 28 pages including all the comments and legislative notes. There are many sections that deserve a more extensive dive, but I want to begin with a subsection that relates to a topic I’ve written about before: Platooning. The Act does not include a provision that would legalize platooning, but it does contain a single provision that addresses state laws regarding minimum following distance: Section 9 (h). Section 9 covers “Rules of the Road.” Subsection (h) states:

A provision of [this state’s vehicle code] imposing a minimum following distance other than a reasonable and prudent distance does not apply to the automated operation of an automated vehicle.

The comment to the section clarifies subsection h:

[T]his section provides that a numerical minimal following-distance requirement does not apply to the automated operation of automated vehicles. These numerical minimums may be unnecessarily large for automated vehicles that react faster than human drivers. However, the common “reasonable and prudent” following-distance requirement continues to apply. This bracketed subsection (h) differs in scope from following-distance legislation enacted in some states to facilitate the platooning of vehicles, particularly commercial trucks, that use advanced technologies but may not necessarily qualify as automated vehicles.

As I’ve written about before, platooning vehicles that follow at incredibly close distances could be considered “reasonable and prudent” given the connected nature and quick response times of the technology. If the Uniform Act were adopted in some states, it could present the opportunity to argue that there is, or should be, a reasonable car standard applied to autonomous vehicles. The act also solves the problems of states with 300-500-foot following distance requirements for trucks.

The passage of the Act is exciting for many reasons. It shows that the legal world is taking autonomous vehicles seriously, and is taking fundamental steps to create a legal framework within which these vehicles can operate. It also provides a baseline for states to modify their existing laws to allow autonomous vehicles to be exempted from many requirements that need not apply to autonomous vehicles. For example, there is no need for a steering wheel or gas pedals in an AV. There may be a need for a large touchscreen like in the various Tesla models, which would be distracting in traditional vehicles. The Act will hopefully spark discussions about the proper way to regulate autonomous vehicles at the state level, and may even spark debate over the merits of varied state or uniform federal regulation.

2 comments add your comment

  1. The act does not cover vehicle features meant to merely assist a human driver, as the most common ADAS are intended to do. Those features which help with braking, steering, and accelerating, but are designed with the expectation that a human driver is in the driver seat monitoring the road, are not covered by the Act. The Act only covers fully automated vehicles, those considered to be at SAE levels 3-5.