Autonomous Vehicles: Past, Present, & Future – How Legislation has Adapted to the Advent of AVs

Autonomous Vehicles: Past, Present, & Future – How Legislation has Adapted to the Advent of AVs

Written by Dominique Engome Tchupo, Ph.D.
Senior Human Factors Researcher
Jumpseat Research


What Are Autonomous Vehicles? 

An autonomous vehicle or AV is broadly defined as any vehicle with the ability to sense its surroundings, respond to traffic conditions, and avoid road hazards including other vehicles and pedestrians with little to no human intervention.   

Levels of Vehicle Automation 

Although the term “autonomous vehicle” is often used interchangeably with “self-driving car,” there are 6 levels of vehicle automation.   

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) classifies vehicle automation in 6 levels, from level 0, with no automation, to level 5 with full automation.

Figure 1: Society of Automotive Engineers Levels of Vehicle Automation [Source: A Vision of Safety 2.0]
In the United States, levels 0 – 2 AVs are available for use by anyone with a proper license, and level 3 AVs are predominantly available only for testing and corporations, with only Nevada and California allowing public use. Level 4 and 5 AVs are currently not available to the public in the United States. 

A Brief History of Autonomous Vehicles 

Autonomous vehicle technology started testing in the 1980s, but the first well-known test was the DARPA grand challenge in 2004. During that first challenge, only one AV managed to finish the race, but less than a year later several AVs were able to finish the race. 

The pace of developments in autonomous driving technology has been exponential, and although testing of AVs slowed down following a series of sometimes fatal accidents in early 2018, it is still progressing given the significant benefits this technology could provide. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Autonomous Vehicles

The greatest touted advantage of AVs is their ability to reduce or eliminate the number of accidents caused by humans. This includes accidents caused by distracted or impaired driving and human error. Science Alert estimates that by eliminating accidents caused by human error alone, the rate of accidents could be reduced by 90%.  

Current disadvantages of AVs are mainly focused on level 3 AVs. Level 3 AVs can drive with little assistance from the human, but in an emergency, the human is required to take over, raising the issue of the human’s reaction time. It is also suggested that the human may be a poor replacement in an emergency as humans are notoriously bad at these ‘vigilance’ tasks.  

Many believe that level 3 AVs would create more problems than they would solve, which is why some companies (like Volvo) are electing to skip level 3 and go straight to level 5 for commercial use. 

Autonomous Vehicle Legislation in the United States


Currently, there is no legislation controlling the use and marketing of AVs on a federal level. The lack of federal regulation on the topic is not due to lack of consideration. While various bills have been introduced in Congress regarding AVs, they’ve simply historically failed to pass. That said, NHTSA does require the reporting of crashes involving AVs.  


While the federal government has not implemented wide-reaching regulations for AVs, state governments have continuously updated AV laws within their borders. By default, autonomous vehicles are not banned in the US, but each year, the number of states enacting or reviewing legislation related to AVs has increased. As of April 2024, 44 states, and the District of Columbia, have enacted some law or executive order regarding autonomous vehicles. Currently, only Montana, Wyoming, Missouri, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Alaska have not passed any law or executive order governing the use of autonomous vehicles within their borders. 

Considerations For Widespread AV Adoption 

Emergency Services

While the development of AV technology continues to advance, we must consider certain things for the smooth integration and adoption of AVs. Issues that have arisen with fully autonomous vehicles revolve around their response to emergency vehicles and situations. Several states, including California and Texas, have been grappling with the issue of driverless cars not responding properly to emergency vehicles.   

There are two main problems that arise when AVs are in emergency situations. First, AVs currently have a hard time knowing when and how to pull over when an emergency vehicle with sirens pulls up behind them. This has led to emergency vehicles having to re-route due to the AV failing to cede the way, which can mean life or death when time is of the essence. The second issue is that AVs have a hard time having ‘situational awareness’ that an emergency scene is ahead. In certain instances, first responders had to break the driverless car’s windows to stop it from continuing towards a closed off space. For widespread adoption of AVs, the technology needs to go beyond navigating the roads and identifying obstacles, it must be able to respond to situations like these to not make a bad situation worse. 

Road Signs

Another detail that must be considered is signage. Road signs need to be updated so that AVs can identify them and act accordingly. This issue is already under consideration with the latest edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways (MTUCD 11th edition), which includes traffic control considerations to accommodate AVs. 

Final Thoughts

While AVs bring about many benefits, and the advent of driverless cars could mean safer roads by eliminating human error, there is still much work to be done before we get there. Legislation needs to catch up with the pace of development to ensure that AVs are tested properly and safely, and that the operation of AVs is controlled and safe. Our roadways need to adapt to accommodate AVs by improving or updating signage, among other things. Furthermore, AV technology needs to be more ‘human-like’ with regards to situational awareness. A driverless car needs to be able to recognize and access emergency situations and react accordingly.