Nebraska senator floats bill to address driverless vehicle liability

Jan. 31, 2019

It is hoped that the state legislature will get ahead of pervasive AV use, though detractors say it’s unnecessary

The question of liability in the event of an accident or incident involving driverless vehicles or vehicles equipped with semi-autonomous technology is one that presently puzzles members of government and concerns both vehicle manufacturers and technology developers alike. There is one state, however, looking to get ahead of what is generally understood to be the inevitable proliferation of driverless vehicles on public roadways.

Under a legislative bill introduced by Nebraska State Sen. Suzanne Geist (R. - Lincoln), the manufacturer of self-driving technology in use in vehicles on public roadways would be liable in a crash involving a vehicle that was capable of “the entire driving task” and operating in autonomous mode.

In the case of a vehicle operating “in concert” with a driver, i.e. semi-autonomous driving such as a car with lane-centering technology that requires a motorist to touch the wheel every so often or take control when making a stop, the driver would be liable.

Julie Maaske, director of the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles, said the DMV asked Geist to introduce the bill, labeled Legislative Bill 142, in effort to standardize such liability rules across the nation, based on guidance provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the federal Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

LB 142 also requires manufacturers of automated driving systems to have at least $5 million worth of liability insurance and $1 million of insurance per vehicle, per accident.

The proposed measure does, however, have its detractors.

Leighton Yates of the National Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers opposes LB 142, saying a law passed last year, LB 989, already contains language defining liability in a crash situation. Yates said that LB 142 was unnecessary and would put Nebraska “out of step” with the rest of the country. In the event of a crash, Yates said, normal standards of liability would apply, e.g. if a person improperly uses automated features, that person would be liable.

Sen. Bruce Bostelman (R. - Brainard) countered, saying that current law makes it likely that lawsuits would determine who is liable, and that LB 142 is an attempt to avoid that.

The Teamsters Union is backing a bill by Omaha Sen. Mike McDonnell, LB 521, that would require a “conventional human driver” to be present in any “driverless-capable vehicle.” That bill is scheduled for a public hearing later in the 2019 session. Geist offered an amended version of her bill after discussing concerns with the manufacturers alliance, as well as representatives of Uber and Lyft. It would make a human driver liable, except when the automated driving system is engaged.