NC Regulates Fully Autonomous Vehicles

Last month, the General Assembly ratified a bill authorizing the operation of fully autonomous vehicles on state roadways. The legislation is effective December 1, 2017.  If you expect your car to begin driving you to work later this fall, however, you’ll be disappointed. In this instance, legislation has outpaced the technology it regulates.

The legislation. North Carolina joined nineteen other states in regulating the operation of the autonomous vehicles when Governor Roy Cooper signed House Bill 469 last week.

S.L. 2017-166 (H 469) enacts new Article 18 in Chapter 20 (G.S. § 20-400 – 403) to regulate the operation of fully autonomous vehicles. A “fully autonomous vehicle” is a motor vehicle that is equipped with an automated driving system that does not require an occupant of the vehicle to perform any portion of the operational or tactical control of the vehicle when the automated driving system is engaged. In fact, to qualify as a fully autonomous vehicle any equipment that permits an occupant to perform part of the driving task must be stowed or made unusable so that an occupant cannot assume control of the vehicle when the automated driving system is engaged.

In engineering lingo, fully autonomous vehicles are classified at SAE Levels 4 and 5. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration explains these classifications this way:

  • At SAE Level 4, an automated system can conduct the driving task and monitor the driving environment, and the human need not take back control, but the automated system can operate only in certain environments and under certain conditions; and

  • At SAE Level 5, the automated system can perform all driving tasks, under all conditions that a human driver could perform them.


Vehicle requirements. New G.S. 20-401(g) permits the operation of fully autonomous vehicles on North Carolina roadways if the vehicle meets all of the following requirements:

(1) the vehicle complies with state and federal law and has been certified as being in compliance with federal motor vehicle safety standards;

(2) if involved in a crash, the vehicle is capable of stopping at the scene, contacting the appropriate law enforcement agency to report the crash, calling for medical assistance, and remaining at the scene until authorized to leave;

(3) the vehicle can achieve a “minimal risk condition” (meaning that if the automatic driving system fails, the vehicle comes to a complete stop);

(4) the vehicle is covered by a motor vehicle liability policy meeting statutory requirements; and

(5) the vehicle is lawfully registered.

No license necessary. New G.S. 20-401(a) states that the operator of a fully autonomous vehicle with the automated driving system engaged is not required to be licensed to drive.

The owner is responsible. New G.S. 20-401(d) provides that the person in whose name a fully autonomous vehicle is registered is responsible for any moving violations involving the vehicle.

Fully autonomous vehicles are no substitute for a babysitter. A person must be at least 12 years old to travel unsupervised in a fully autonomous vehicle. G.S. 20-401(c) makes it unlawful for the parent or legal guardian of a child under 12 to knowingly permit the child to occupy a fully autonomous vehicle that is in motion or that has the engine running unless the child is being supervised by a person who is at least 18 years old.

Preemption. Local governments are prohibited under new G.S. 20-401(f) from enacting laws regulating fully autonomous vehicles or vehicles that are equipped with an automated driving system. Local governments may, however, continue to regulate traffic as authorized in Chapter 153A and Chapter 160A of the General Statutes so long as the regulations apply to motor vehicles generally.

Fully Autonomous Vehicle Committee established. New G.S. 20-403 creates a Fully Autonomous Vehicle Committee within the North Carolina Department of Transportation (DOT) and specifies the categories of persons who shall comprise the 17-member committee. The committee must meet at least four times a year to consider matters related to fully autonomous vehicle technology, review the application of state motor vehicle law to fully autonomous vehicles, make recommendations regarding the testing of fully autonomous vehicles, make recommendations for DOT rules and ordinances, and make recommendations to the General Assembly on necessary changes to state law.

Where can I get one of these vehicles?  Nowhere just yet.

Ford Motor Company says it will produce a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021. But the vehicle it promises is a Level 4 vehicle, which means that it is fully autonomous only in certain areas and under certain conditions. An industry analyst explained here that such a car may only be fully autonomous in a geo-fenced area, such as the area of Pittsburgh where Uber is testing self-driving cars.

It may be another decade before Level 5 automation—think a vehicle with no steering wheel or pedals—is available.  But when it is, North Carolina will be ready.

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