Automated Driving Systems Are Considered People in Tennessee

A bill adding autonomous car provisions to motor vehicle codes includes automated driving systems in its definition of a person.

byJustin Hughes| UPDATED Oct 11, 2017 4:52 PM
Automated Driving Systems Are Considered People in Tennessee

Former Presidential candidate Mitt Romney caught flak for declaring "Corporations are people, my friend." The Tennessee state Senate has added an additional definition of a person: An engaged automated driving system.

Tennessee Senate Bill 151 makes a number of revisions to the state's motor vehicle codes regarding the use of automated driving systems. The bill defines automated driving systems as follows:

"'Automated driving system' or 'ADS' means technology installed on a motor vehicle that has the capability to drive the vehicle on which the technology is installed in high or full-automation mode, without any supervision by a human operator, with specific driving mode performance by the automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task that can be managed by a human driver, including the ability to automatically bring the motor vehicle into a minimal risk condition in the event of a critical vehicle or system failure or other emergency event."

Though clearly intended to pave the way for autonomous cars, this definition seems to encompass existing systems such as Tesla's Autopilot or Cadillac's SuperCruise. Many of the updates and revisions to existing laws address questions of liability and responsibility when ADS is engaged. For example, ADS is not considered responsible for making sure children are wearing seat belts, which human drivers are. This is an area of great concern, and it is good to see the Tennessee legislature actively addressing this topic while the federal government seems to be throwing caution to the wind.

But Section 55-8-101, which provides terminology definitions for the motor vehicle code, has been revised by Senate Bill 151 to read as follows:

"(46) 'Person' means a natural person, firm, copartnership, association, corporation, or an engaged ADS."

Not only are corporations legally people, but so are automated driving systems when they are in use. In the eyes of Tennessee law, a Cadillac CT6 on SuperCruise is just as much a person as you or me.

This definition change is limited to the motor vehicle code, so we don't have to worry about a Terminator-style rise of the machines in our legal system just yet. But it does apply to the entire Tennessee motor vehicle code, which could have unintended legal consequences. In the unfortunate event that a car kills someone while ADS is engaged, can the victim's family now sue the ADS for damages or negligence? Who pays up if the ADS is found to be at fault? The owner? The non-owner occupant? The manufacturer? The subcontractor who programmed the ADS logic?

These aren't situations that can only happen in the distant future once the technology's bugs are all worked out. ADS is specifically defined as "high" as well as "full" automation, and some driver assistance systems available today qualify. It will be worth watching what situations and legal cases come up in Tennessee, as they may set a precedent for how the entire country handles the many legal questions that still remain regarding autonomous cars.