Regulation of Fully Autonomous Vehicles (HB 469 / S 337, 2017-2018 Session of North Carolina General Assembly)

The Policy

What it does

Regulates the operation of fully autonomous motor vehicles on the public highways in the state of North Carolina.


North Carolina HB 469 / S 337 modifies Chapter 20 of the General Statutes (GS) on Motor Vehicles to define autonomous vehicle terminology and ultimately regulate the operation of fully autonomous motor vehicles on public highways in the state of North Carolina. The bill would add a new article, “Regulation of Fully Autonomous Vehicles,” to General Statutes and amend several articles throughout the chapter.

The bill defines fully autonomous vehicles as capable of performing “all aspects of the dynamic driving task without a human driver and will not at any time require that a driver assume any portion of the dynamic driving task.” The bill further clarifies that its provisions apply only to fully autonomous vehicles, stating that nothing, “shall be construed to affect, alter, or amend the ability to operate a vehicle with an automated driving system that is not a fully autonomous vehicle.” This leaves semi-autonomous vehicles as subject to existing motor vehicles statutes; these vehicles are “equipped with features that can assume one or more components of the dynamic driving task”; in other words, a human driver may (or must) serve a role in driving a semi-autonomous vehicle.

Notably, the bill preempts local governments from regulating any type of autonomous vehicle, either fully or semi-autonomous, except for vehicle-related regulation explicitly authorized under General Statutes by Counties and Cities and Towns.

Fully autonomous vehicles are permitted to operate if the following requirements are met, including:

  • Manufacturer-certified as compliant with federal motor vehicle safety standards;
  • Capable of being operated in compliance with: 1) the North Carolina Motor Vehicle Act of 1937 (GS 20 Article 3), 2) Safety and Emissions Inspection Program (GS 20 Article 3A), 3) Miscellaneous Provisions Relating to Motor Vehicles (GS 20 Article 7), and 4) the Vehicle Financial Responsibility Act of 1957 (GS 20 Article 13);
  • Ability to perform under a low-risk operating mode, or minimal risk condition, that can achieve a reasonably safe state, such as bringing the vehicle to a complete stop, upon experiencing a failure of the vehicle's automated driving system;
  • Covered by a motor vehicle liability policy (GS 20-279.21); and
  • Registered with the state and identified as a fully autonomous vehicle as part of the registration process.

Other sections of the bill update existing aspects of the Motor Vehicle statutes to incorporate fully autonomous vehicles into standard state practices:

  • Extends the existing definition of an “operator” and “driver” to include any person who “causes a fully autonomous vehicle… to move with the automated driving system… engaged.” The bill refers to the hardware and software that control the vehicle as the “automatic driving system.”
  • Exempts from the driver’s license requirement the automatic driving system and the operator of a fully autonomous vehicle
  • Mandates that owners of fully autonomous vehicles maintain registration cards for their vehicles, and, in the event of a traffic stop, have the registration card available to law enforcement on demand (fully autonomous vehicles will also have the option of showing the registration electronically).
  • Designates a parent or guardian will be responsible for ensuring that a child under 16 is wearing a seat belt or applicable child restraint (e.g., infant car seat), and not riding in an open pickup bed or cargo area. The automated driving system itself is exempt from wearing a seat belt.
  • Allows fully autonomous vehicles to stand unattended on a public highway with the engine running and/or the parking brake disengaged. Currently, a motor vehicle on a public highway or public vehicular area needs to have the engine turned off and the brake set (or the equivalent).
  • Requiring fully autonomous vehicles to stop in the event of a crash. The vehicle or person responsible for the vehicle should also notify law enforcement in the event of a crash. The owner of the vehicle will be held responsible for associated violations. 

If ratified, the act would become effective on December 1, 2017.


<p>In January, 2017, the US Department of Transportation designated the <a href="">North Carolina Turnpike Authority</a> as one of <a href="">10 national proving ground pilot sites</a> for testing automated vehicles. If ratified, this bill would provide additional incentive for companies to deploy fully autonomous vehicles in North Carolina.</p>

<p>The <a href="">Federal Automated Vehicle Policy</a> (FAVP) observes the <a href="">SAE International</a> (SAE) definitions for levels of automation to define the term “Highly Automated Vehicle.” SAE is a global professional association of over 128,000 aerospace, automotive, and commercial-vehicle engineers and technical experts, and is recognized as the world's largest developer of standards for the automotive and aerospace industries. The SAE definitions for automation divides vehicles into six levels ranging from no automation to full automation based on “who” does what:</p>

<li>SAE Level 0: No automation</li>
<li>SAE Level 1: Driver assistance</li>
<li>SAE Level 2: Partial automation</li>
<li>SAE Level 3: Conditional automation</li>
<li>SAE Level 4: High automation</li>
<li>SAE Level 5: Full automation</li>

<p>While the FAVP applies to vehicles at SAE Level 3 and above, NS HB 469 applies only to SAE Level 5, which leaves SAE Levels 0 through 4 subject to existing provisions. This means that HB 469 will only apply to the most advanced automation and, therefore, would be applicable at an unknown and likely distant future date.</p>

The Science

Science Synopsis

Several companies, including Ford, BMW, Waymo and Tesla, have announced plans to manufacture fully autonomous cars within the next five years. As these cars are still under development, safe deployment of these vehicles is likely many years away. Semi-autonomous cars will be available to buyers much sooner. Volvo, for example, is actively testing these vehicles in Sweden (SciPol brief available).

Fully autonomous vehicles require several different technologies to function. First, they require sensors to collect visual and location data. Visual sensors can include light imaging detection and ranging (LIDAR), radio detection and ranging (RADAR), or cameras, or a combination of all three. Each technology has its own advantages and disadvantages, so multi-sensor systems are often used so the strengths of one sensor offsets the weakness of another. LIDAR can produce a 3D map 100 meters around a vehicle, but they produce large amounts of data and do not perform well in rain or snow. RADAR is effective at detecting object distance and motion. It does not have the detail of LIDAR, but it is effective in a variety of weather conditions. Cameras can see in color, and therefore are potentially the best at object recognition, but they require the most data of the three types of sensors. 

Computer vision entails collecting the visual sensor data, processing it using a computer, and interpreting it in a way that is useful to the vehicle, such as ignoring background scenery or recognizing a road hazard before applying the brakes.

For location data, fully autonomous vehicles use powerful on-board computers to produce local maps using sensor data. Local maps give the location of the vehicle relative to the objects in the environment. Global Positioning Sensor (GPS) equipment can provide a vehicle’s absolute location, but local maps are required when GPS data are not available, such as inside a parking garage.

Performing under a minimal risk condition refers to an autonomous vehicle’s ability to return to a safe location in the event of a system malfunction, or to operate safely in a degraded state. Since autonomous vehicles will be expected to operate in a variety of roadway types, speeds, geographic areas and environmental conditions, the circumstances of the minimal risk condition may vary.

Relevant Experts

Michael Clamann, PhD, CHFP, Senior Research Scientist, Duke Robotics

The Debate

Endorsements & Opposition

Representative Phil Shepard (R-District 15), the bill’s sponsor, believes the bill is necessary to prepare the state for autonomous vehicles, stating “They are up and coming, they’re going to be here before we know it, and we wanted to get started on it in advance.”

Representative Kelly M. Alexander, Jr. (D-District 107), a cosponsor of the bill, believes it will encourage testing of these technologies in North Carolina, stating “We will not only be ahead but we may be able to attract some of the major components of the industry.”

At present, there has not been any publicly reported opposition to this bill.