Moving Towards a Driverless Era

By: Madhura Bhandarkar


We are at the cusp of a Fourth Industrial Revolution with rapid development in the field of Automotive Vehicular Technology and Artificial Intelligence. Companies like Google, Tesla Motors, and Uber to name a few are working towards the development of autonomous cars which will do away with manual controls or even human monitoring while commuting in a car.

While the concept sounds brilliant on paper, it will create a ton of legal challenges once it hits the road as technology is developing at an exponential rate but the legal development is slow to catch up. The author will, through this article, look into the global developments in the field of autonomous vehicles and law and discuss the existing Indian legal framework with this respect.


Before looking into the legal aspect, it is highly essential for us to understand the working principle of autonomous vehicles. These cars work with advanced tools to gather information, including long-range radar, Light Detection and Ranging (hereinafter LIDAR), cameras, short/medium-range radar, and ultrasound and also on the principle of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, which is unlike the rigid programming systems wherein, the program gives specific predictive outputs; these machines are trained by experience and pattern recognition, which is similar to how humans learn and this would enable a car to navigate itself.


This technology will reduce the number of road accidents as according to the statistic report by the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration (hereinafter NHTSA), 94% of road accidents in the United States America are caused due to human error.[1] It will also benefit people with disabilities to commute from one place to another without being dependent on anyone.

The existing motor vehicular legal framework would not be applicable to these vehicles. Moreover, the biggest concern will be that of cybersecurity as these autonomous vehicles rely heavily on computer codes for its functioning.


United States of America, United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Singapore are some of the countries that have initiated legal framework and policy making with respect to driverless vehicles. In 2011, Nevada, a state in the United States of America, became the first state in the world to adopt legislation pertaining to driverless cars, but only till the extent of testing of autonomous vehicles on the public road. According to the statistics by National Conference of State Legislature (hereinafter NCSL), 33 states of the United States of America have introduced legislations regarding testing of self-drive cars in the year 2017.[2] However, the United States of America lacks federal rules as well as rules regarding commercial use. ‘The Vehicle Technology and Aviation and Aviation Bill’[3] in the Parliament of the United Kingdom has dealt with the most crucial issue of an insurance policy with respect to automotive technology. The bill has listed provisions wherein accidents due to contributory negligence of the owner, accidents caused solely by the vehicle, accidents as a result of unauthorised alterations or failure to update software are contemplated.


Introduction of Section 2 B, in 2016, as an amendment to the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988[4], indirectly tried to bring self-drive cars under the ambit of the Indian legal system. Section 2 B articulates that these innovations must adhere to the “conditions” prescribed by the Central Government. Further, the Section goes on to say that some of the mechanically propelled vehicles would be exempted from the provisions of the Motor Vehicles Act for the purpose of innovation and development. The inference drawn from this is that the Government is trying to delay the inevitable task of framing concrete rules, regulations, and laws regarding autonomous vehicles. There will be numerous disputes that would arise once self-drive cars are permitted on public roads.   Countries around the world have already started testing these vehicles and India is not far behind in the automotive race. As a matter of fact, Novus Drive, a driverless shuttle, was the first of its kind to debut in the country and was seen carrying visitors from one dome center to another during its showcase at the Defexpo 2016 held in Delhi.[5] Moreover, Tata Elxis, an arm of the Tata Group is developing and testing driverless cars in India.[6] It will be part of the major players in this field, like Google and Tesla once they get permission for testing their vehicles on Indian roads. The legislation should come at par with the growing technological development to protect individuals from any harm caused by these vehicles and also to keep a check on multinational companies dealing with this technology.

Motor Vehicles Act defines “Motor  Vehicle” or   “Vehicle”  as  “any  mechanically propelled vehicle adapted for use upon roads whether the power propulsion is  transmitted thereto from an external or internal source and includes  a chassis  to which  a body  has not been attached and a trailer; but  does not include a vehicle running upon fixed rails or a vehicle of  a special type adapted for use only in a factory or in any other enclosed  premises or  a vehicle  having less  than four  wheels fitted  with  engine  capacity  of  not  exceeding  thirty-five  cubic centimeters.”[7] The Act uses the term “mechanically propelled vehicle”, but the modern day vehicles rely heavily upon computerisation in engine management, navigation control, steering and braking in emergency situations, climate control. Moreover, many vehicles these days have Android interface incorporated in its system. Autonomous cars, in addition to the above-mentioned computer technologies, have been designed in such a manner that computer codes control the entire vehicle without human monitoring or control. For resolving this glitch, The Legislature of State of California has defined an Autonomous vehicle as “A vehicle operated without active physical control or monitoring of a person.”[8] Various countries and other states in the USA have taken the initiative of defining autonomous vehicles. Clearly, there is a need to amend this definition to incorporate autonomous vehicles in the present legal system or draft a new legislation regarding it.

Another lacuna arises as to the definition of “driver” and who will be construed as a driver in an autonomous vehicle. The Motor Vehicles Act defines “driver” – “includes, in relation to a motor vehicle which is drawn by another motor vehicle, the person who acts as a steersman of the drawn vehicle”.[9] The definition wouldn’t be applicable as a machine cannot be interpreted as a person, further; there is no steering wheel to have a steersman in an automotive vehicle. In the USA, this problem was dealt by The National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration and it told Google that the artificial intelligence system that controls its self-driving car can be considered a driver under federal law. The legal interpretation by the federal regulators was made in response to a November petition from Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s self-driving car project.[10]

As the cars are becoming autonomous, they become more and more vulnerable to the aspect of cyber threats such as hacking.  We need to look into the IT Act, Section 66(1) Hacking with Computer System: “Whoever with the intent of causing or knowing that is likely to cause wrongful loss or damage to the public or any person destroys or deletes or alters any information residing in a computer resource or diminishes its value or utility or affects it injuriously by any means, commits hacking.”[11] The hacking of autonomous vehicles won’t fit under the definition of the present section on hacking under the IT Act as the definition of “computer resource” does not include autonomous vehicles. ‘Securing self-driving cars comes at a price, and it’s a matter of how much automakers are willing to pay. From a hardware perspective, automakers can add more sensors so that if one were compromised, there are others to take over, Petit said. But, most automakers are looking to trim redundant sensor systems to cut down on cost.’[12] The Legislature must hence, widen the scope of hacking under the IT Act and make strict provisions which will put a burden on car manufacturers to ensure anti-hacking mechanisms and safety provisions. Further, it must also discuss the issue of liability and insurance that will arise when an accident occurs due to hacking.


The Article discussed some of the aspects of the existing Indian legal framework and how it will not be suitable for autonomous vehicles. Also, Global trends were seen and comparison was done with the Indian laws. The urgency of introducing concrete laws was discussed as the rate at which technology is growing; it is capable of creating major crisis all around the world. Soon, we will be seeing not only autonomous vehicles but other artificially intelligent machines that will be capable of taking decisions on their own, creating difficulties that we are yet to imagine. As Stephen Hawking has said, “Artificial Intelligence can be the best or the worst thing that could happen to humanity.” Which one do you want it to be?

[1] ‘Data Shows that 94 Percent of Car Accidents Caused by Human Error’ (Southside Injury Attorney ), <; accessed on 27 August, 2017.

[2] ‘Automated Vehicles’  (NCSL National Conference of State Legislature) <; accessed on 2 September 2017.

[3] Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill 2017.

[4] The Motor Vehicles Act 1988, s 2B.

[5] ‘Preparing for a Driverless Future’, (Nishith Desai Associates June 2016) <…/Preparing_For_a_Driverless_Future.pdf&gt; accessed on 2 September 2017.

[6] V Rishi Kumar, ‘Tata Elexis too joins autonomous car bandwagon’, (The Hindu Business Line, 6 June 2017) <; accessed on 28th August 2017).

[7] Motor Vehicles Act 1988, s 2 (28).

[8] California Vehicle Code, s 38750.

[9] Motor Vehicles Act 1988, s 2(9).

[10] Kirsten Korosec, ‘The Artificial Intelligence in Google’s Self-Driving Cars Now Qualifies as Legal Driver’ (Fortune Tech, 10 February 2016), <; accessed 1 September 2017.

[11] The Information Technology Act 2000, Sec 66(1).

[12] Danielle Muoio, ‘Self-driving cars are prone to hacks – and automakers are barely talking about it’, (Business Insider UK, 15 December 2016), <; accessed 3 September 2017.

(Madhura is currently a student at Indian Law Society’s Law College, Pune)