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Driverless Cars: Public Health Law Implications

posted on Tue, Mar 4 2014 10:10 am by Song Choi Betzler

In December 2013, Michigan became the fifth jurisdiction to enact legislation allowing autonomous vehicles on public roads. These cars have the capability to drive without the active control or monitoring by a person. While this is a terrific accomplishment in technology, it also raises many questions and concerns about how it will impact public health. How will it change vehicle and traffic safety regulations? Will it intrude on public health efforts to increase healthier modes of transportation such as walking, biking, and public transportation? It may be years before this technology becomes publicly available, but the public health community needs to be aware of the implications this technology may have on the public’s health, safety and welfare.

Currently Michigan, California, Nevada, Florida, and Washington, D.C. are the only jurisdictions with laws that specifically allow and regulate autonomous vehicles. The purpose of these laws is to regulate the testing of autonomous technology on public roads. They are not yet geared towards operation by the general public, and driving autonomous vehicles are only allowed under certain conditions. In California, an autonomous vehicle can only be operated by employees, contractors, or others designated by the manufacturer. A driver must be in the driver’s seat, monitoring the vehicle and capable of taking over manual control. Washington, D.C. has similar requirements and only permits autonomous vehicles on public roads if it has a manual override system and a driver in the control seat. A driver may be required to have a special drivers’ license, and there may be stringent certification, registration and insurance requirements for the vehicles before they can be tested on public roads.

The most obvious public health concern associated with driverless cars is vehicle safety. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) heavily regulates federal motor vehicle safety standards. In its preliminary policy statement, the NHTSA notes autonomous technology may potentially improve highway safety. Highly effective crash avoidance technology may help reduce the number of crashes. Drivers will rely more on technology as cars become driverless and this begs the question on how laws that address driver behavior will be affected. Florida has already enacted a texting while driving ban that does not apply to drivers operating an autonomous vehicle in autonomous mode.

Another area of concern is whether driverless cars will impact current public health efforts to encourage healthier modes of transportation such as biking and walking. Will it encourage people to drive more if they no longer have to be actively in control of the vehicle at all times? How will autonomous technology interact with bicyclists, pedestrians and public transportation? How will it impact the environment? The NHTSA notes highly effective autonomous technology may lead to less fuel consumption through better traffic flow and conservation of fuel. It may also help certain populations, such as seniors and the disabled, be more mobile and independent.

The NHTSA will continue to track developments and provide recommendations as they research and test autonomous vehicles. This technology will require changes to vehicle and driving laws and have the potential to change driver-vehicle interaction. Technology will continue to advance and the public health community needs to be aware of these advancements and their implications. We must proactively work with the technology industry and legislators to ensure they also advance public health goals and needs.

This blog post was developed by Song Choi Betzler, Legal Fellow at the Network for Public Health Law – Mid-States Region at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state. This blog post does not represent the views of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Photo by Flickr user jurvetson (Steve Jurvetson).

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