The emergence of the era of self-driven vehicles brings a new concern over driver safety on Colorado roadways. The increasing popularity of autonomous vehicles now requires drivers to be aware of their heightened responsibilities while behind the wheel.
What is a Driverless Car?
A driverless car, also known as an autonomous vehicle or self-driven vehicle, is a vehicle capable of sensing its surrounding environment without driver involvement. A driverless vehicle can go anywhere a traditional vehicle can go and, in theory, can carry out all of the same actions as a driver physically behind the wheel all without the need for a that driver to present in the driver’s seat.
The idea of a “driverless car” has been around for quite some time. In 1939, General Motors created the first self-driving car guided by radio-controlled electromagnetic fields and operated from magnetized metal spikes embedded in the roadway. As technology continued to develop over the coming decades, so did the reality of a truly driverless car. By the mid-2010’s, major car companies like Ford, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW, along with rideshare programs like Uber and Lyft, began exploring self-driving technology. In 2021, Tesla became the front runner as the closest company to put an autonomous vehicle on the market with its Full Driving Package which enabled hands-free control for highway and freeway driving.
Six Levels of Driverless Cars
With more vehicle manufacturers testing driverless vehicles, the Society of Automotive Engineers (“SAE”) developed the “6 levels of automation” for which driving automation systems are guided. These levels have been adopted by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Levels 0-2 maintain a driver element for operation while levels 3-5 begin to employ vehicle automation. The following is an overview of the 6 levels of automation that have been adopted:
- Level 0 – No Driving Automation: Most vehicles on roadways are classified as Level 0 because the vehicle is manually controlled by a driver.
- Level 1 – Driver Assistance: Level 1 Vehicles are still manually controlled by a driver, but the vehicle features a single automated system for assistance, such as adaptive cruise control.
- Level 2 – Partial Driving Automation: Level 2 Vehicles have advanced driver assistance systems (“ADAS”), whereby the vehicle can control both steering and accelerating/decelerating. A driver is still in the driver’s seat and can take control of the vehicle at any time. These types of systems are often referred to as “autopilot”. Examples include Tesla Autopilot and Cadillac Super Cruise.
- Level 3 – Conditional Driving Automation: Level 3 Vehicles have “environmental detection” capabilities and can make informed decisions independently, such as accelerating past a slow-moving vehicle. Level 3 Vehicles still require a driver to manually override the program. Therefore, the driver must remain alert and ready to control the vehicle at any time.
- Level 4 – High Driving Automation: Level 4 Vehicles operate in “self-driving” mode. Currently, Level 4 Vehicles are not permitted on most roadways and have only been used in limited areas where top speeds average 30 miles per hour (a practice known as geofencing). The key difference between Level 3 and Level 4 Vehicles is Level 4 vehicles can intervene if things go wrong or if a system fails. In most circumstances, Level 4 Vehicles do not require human interaction, but a driver still has the ability to manually override the system.
- Level 5 – Full Driving Automation: In Level 5 Vehicles, no driver attention is required. Currently, Level 5 Vehicles are not available to the general public. However, when permitted, they will not contain steering wheels or acceleration/brake pedals and will be free from geofencing.
Legality of Driverless Cars in Colorado
In 2017, Senate Bill 17-13 authorized the use of autonomous driving systems in Colorado under certain conditions:
- Levels of automation 0-3 are legal under Colorado law as long as a human driver is present in the vehicle.
- Levels of automation 4-5 are legal under Colorado law, with or without a human driver, if they can meet all applicable state and federal laws.
- If the automated driving system (“ADS”) cannot meet all state and federal laws, the Colorado Department of Transportation and Colorado State Patrol are responsible for approving their operation in the State of Colorado.
- No Colorado state agency or local jurisdiction may set policy or regulations for an ADS that are different from the standards set for a human driver.
The most significant take away from Senate Bill 17-13 is that Colorado permits driverless cars on its roadways so long as they can comply with State and Federal laws.
In 2019, there were an estimated 31.4 million autonomous vehicles globally. As the availability of these vehicle continues to increase, the number of autonomous vehicles is estimated to increase to nearly 54.2 million by 2024. As the presence of these vehicles continues to increase, so do the risks of being involved in a motor vehicle collision.
Contact a Colorado Driverless Car Attorney
Jessica is a Colorado native. She is admitted to practice law in the State of Colorado as well as the United States District Court for the District of Colorado. Jessica is an active member of the Colorado Bar Association, Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, and American Association for Justice.