Are Autonomous Cars Legal in Tennessee?

April 27 2018 | Blog
  • Tennessee Legislatures enacted 16 new laws effective January 2018 – one of which was an in-depth law regarding the future of autonomous vehicles on the state’s roads. It also put the state on the national stage when it came to handling liability for accidents involving the vehicles, manufacturers, and passengers in the car.

    The “Autonomous Vehicles Act” was enacted by Senate Bill Number 151, which is available to be read at the Department of State website. Principally, the law allows for autonomous vehicles to be operated in Tennessee with restrictions.


    Tennessee’s Place in the National Conversation

    Nevada was the first state to authorize the operation of autonomous vehicles in 2011. Tennessee started in 2015 with SB-598, which “prohibits local governments from banning the use of motor vehicles equipped with autonomous technology.”

    The technology is growing at a rapid pace. Many newer vehicles have features such as self-guided parking, warnings when lane changes are unsafe and actual car operations such as Tesla’s so-called “Autopilot” feature which allows the vehicle to take over with a driver in the car. More recently, the 2018 Cadillac CT6 has a Super Cruise feature that reportedly will enable operators to take their hands off the wheel and their feet off the pedals., allowing the car to drive.

    “Every vehicle currently for sale in the United States requires the full attention of the driver at all times for safe operation. While an increasing number of vehicles now offer some automated safety features designed to assist the driver under specific conditions, there is no vehicle currently for sale that is fully automated or ‘self-driving’,” the NHTSA said.

    Nevertheless, Tennessee Representative William Lamberth, who sponsored the legislation, says the reason for the law was to look to the future.

    “We changed many of our laws that would allow autonomous vehicles to be deployed here on Tennessee highways,” said Lamberth. “At the same time, we will require a lot from anyone who would own an autonomous vehicle or would manufacture one here.”


    Requirements of the Autonomous Vehicle Act

    A few key highlights of the law:

    • Defines that an “Automated Driving System” (ADS) is a technology that allows the vehicle to drive in a “high or full-automation mode, without any supervision by a human operator”


    • For the purpose of liability, the ADS is referred to as a person in the same way that a natural person, firm, co-partnership or corporation is considered a person legally


    • Allows for a vehicle with an ADS to operate without a human operator in the vehicle


    • Requires a primary liability insurance plan of at least $5 million


    • Defines liability for occupants of the vehicle in the event an accident


    A key component of the law is the handling of the ADS as a “person” when it is engaged, meaning that in the event of an accident the manufacturer of the system is held legally liable for damages and medical costs.  So, while seeing a vehicle on the road without a driver — as companies such as GM are developing — may be an unsettling sight, the legislation requires that it be clear who pays those bills in the event of a system failure or accident.

    The law also required the ADS to have a system for automatically bringing “the motor vehicle into a minimal risk condition in the event of a critical vehicle or system failure or other emergency event.”

    Additionally, while the manufacturers would be held liable for accidents, occupants in the car still have responsibilities. For example, wearing a seatbelt is the sole responsibility “for the passenger’s or human operator’s compliance with such requirement”. This means that parents could be held liable for their children not being buckled or harnessed in accordance with existing car seat laws.


    What It Means

    The law itself is developed to be future-proof, as the technology grows.

    “You have to make sure that the bill still protects us from someone trying to rush technology out there on the road, so that’s why (the bill) is so thick,” added Rep. Lamberth. “We are ready for these cars now. We have got the statutory framework in place so that these companies can…sell these vehicles in Tennessee the moment they are guaranteed safe.”

    With the legislation active, Tennessee drivers may well encounter vehicles without drivers, and may require a car accident lawyer if they’ve been injured by one. They should behave around them as if they were any other vehicle – as that is the purpose of the pilot programs.

    They could be seen anywhere in the State, on highways and streets, since no municipality is empowered to ban such vehicles under the new law.  Since current technology requires a person to be in the car to assist in the operation of the vehicle, handling a claim in the event that an accident did happen would be very similar to the current process for exchanging information. Once technology exists to allow for fully autonomous operation without a person inside the vehicle, insurance will no doubt have caught up and the statutes laid out in SB-151 will be applied to the manufacturer.

    Potential for a Safe Future

    The NHTSA says that 94 percent of serious crashes are due to human error,

    “When you consider more than 35,092 people died in motor vehicle-related crashes in the U.S. in 2015, you begin to grasp the lifesaving benefits of driver assistance technologies,” they said. “The Department of Transportation is committed to supporting the innovators who are developing these types of vehicles to ensure their safe testing and deployment before they are available to consumers.”


    For Further Reading:

    State Bill 151

    National Highway Traffic Safety Administration FAQs for Autonomous Vehicle Safety

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