Know The Law: When Will Self-Driving Cars be Legal in New Hampshire?

Headshot - John Weaver
John F. Weaver
Director, Corporate Department and Chair, Real Estate Practice Group and Chair, Artificial Intelligence Practice
Published: Union Leader
October 15, 2013

Q:I’ve heard that other states have legalized fully self-driving cars like Google Car. Can people from Google get driven around New Hampshire in a self-driving car? Can I?

A: So far, Nevada, California, and Florida are the only states that have passed legislation regulating autonomous or self-driving cars. Other states are currently considering similar bills, including Massachusetts, New York, and Michigan. During New Hampshire’s last legislative session, State Representative John Hikel from Goffstown sponsored HB 444, which would have established a committee to study the use of autonomous vehicles in the state. Several individuals spoke at the House Transportation Committee hearing in February, noting that autonomous cars will provide disabled adults with greater mobility outside of their homes. Additionally, there are approximately 1.2 million lives lost each year in traffic accidents. By some estimates, autonomous cars, by removing human error, could cut that number in half. Although the bill passed the House, the Senate Transportation Committee voted it inexpedient to legislate.

For a number of years, even before California passed a law governing self-driving cars, Google tested its autonomous cars on the roads in that state. Prior to the current law, California law required that a human being be in control of a moving vehicle at all times. Google’s legal counsel reviewed motor vehicle regulations there and determined that its test cars were legal because a human driver could override any error. In 2010, staff counsel for the California Department of Motor Vehicles admitted that the “technology is ahead of the law.” When California and Florida passed their statutes, each bill contained language admitting that the states’ then-current laws did not address or govern autonomous cars.

In general, New Hampshire law is similar to those states before their recently passed autonomous car legislation: it does not expressly permit, regulate or prohibit self-driving vehicles. The same legal analysis that led Google to test its cars in California could lead to the same conclusion in New Hampshire. In the absence of a law that directly addresses the issue, law enforcement would be left to rely on the “catch all” reckless or negligent operator laws to deal with autonomous vehicles on the road, even though those laws were obviously not written with self-driving cars in mind.

However, autonomous cars are not commercially available, so individual owners will not have access to those vehicles in this state any time soon. Numerous companies are developing autonomous vehicles, including Audi, Volvo, Mercedes, and BMW. Automotive executives predict that fully autonomous cars will be on the market by 2020. You’ll have to wait until then for a car that can do more than parallel park itself.