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“Pedal to the Metal or Slamming on the Brakes?” Worldwide Regulation of Autonomous Vehicles


Norton Rose Fulbright’s third annual Autonomous Vehicle White Paper, its most ambitious to date, addresses the worldwide regulatory landscape facing the autonomous vehicle market. It covers 20 countries – with Norton Rose Fulbright operating in each one – and summarizes the key aspects of each country’s regulatory scheme concerning AVs.

As of the date of this publication, self-driving cars have logged in over 10 million miles (16 million[1] kilometers) around the globe. Amsterdam, Austin, Berlin, Copenhagen, Guangzhou, London, Ottawa, Paris, San Francisco, Singapore and Sydney, all have self-driving cars shuttling their citizens around[2] in what nearly all experts agree are safer, more efficient vehicles. The world already is witness to the change that the automotive industry is going through and how the leaders in the automotive field (both old and new) are continuing to embrace these innovative vehicles and develop their market.

But this change has come at some cost. Out of the nearly 1.2 million worldwide annual vehicle deaths reported in 2017,[3] it was the four fatalities (3 drivers, 1 pedestrian) involving self-driving cars since 2016 that consumed the media’s attention. These incidents have, at least in some part, shaken the confidence of the public in this technology and its overall safety. Questions have been raised over whether the technology is “ready” to provide all of the benefits that have been touted for so long.

Although the industry is trying to tackle some of these concerns, the role that lawmakers and local authorities will have in this process will and should be considerable. To be sure, there are only a few global, standard rules governing automobiles, and even fewer addressing autonomous vehicles. One of the few examples is the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. Since 1968, this treaty has required that a human driver be in full control of and responsible for the behaviour of the vehicle in traffic. This requirement, however, is now being revisited all over the world, as individual regions are tailoring their laws to reflect their own, local balance between safety and the development and use of self-driving vehicles.

The resulting panoply of rules could not be more varied:

  • United States: Currently has no unitary federal legislation governing autonomous vehicles; the fifty states have created a patchwork quilt of rules by either enacting their own unique rules for these vehicles or by applying their variation of the “traditional” rules to these new cars.
  • India: The laws currently do not permit self-driving cars out of a concern over a potential loss in jobs. The industry, however, including the automotive players and tech start-ups, have entered the country with the belief that the current rules will eventually accommodate these vehicles.
  • Singapore: In what could be the world’s first country to widely adopt autonomous vehicles, last year Singapore enacted rules that exempt autonomous vehicles and their operators from the existing legislation that places the responsibility for the safe use of motor vehicles on a human driver.
  • South Korea: Perhaps the most aggressive country in terms of government investment in autonomous vehicles, recently enacted rules that allow particular self-driving cars to operate on over 320 kilometers of roads and is building an entire artificial town for autonomous vehicle testing. Hyundai showcased the innovations in the country by deploying autonomous cars during the Winter Olympics.

We hope that these materials will not only be useful to those in the self-driving field by providing insight into the current set of global rules that are governing the space but also to the general public and its understanding of the efforts being taken to enhance automotive safety and to encourage innovation and investment in this exciting industry.


[1] See Timothy Lee, “Waymo announces 7 million miles of testing, putting it far ahead of rivals”, Ars Technica, June 6, 2018, available at https://arstechnica.com/cars/2018/06/waymo-announces-7-million-miles-of-testing-putting-it-far-ahead-of-rivals. In addition, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, in 2017, autonomous vehicles logged more than 500,000 miles (800,000 km) on public roads in that state. See “DMV Posts 2017 Autonomous Vehicle Disengagement Reports Online”, Jan. 31, 2018, available at https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/pubs/newsrel/2018/2018_09.

[2] Bloomberg Philanthropies and The Aspen Institute, “Initiatives on Cities and Autonomous Vehicles”, available at https://avsincities.bloomberg.org/ (accessed June 8, 2018).

[3] “Economies of scale will push the market for driverless vehicles towards monopoly”, The Economist, June 9, 2018, at 66.