This article is part of the special topic "Future Mobility".

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It is still unclear who is actually responsible for the safety of autonomous vehicles and the data they generate.
It is still unclear who is actually responsible for the safety of autonomous vehicles and the data they generate.
( Source: gemeinfrei / Pexels)

AUTONOMOUS VEHICLES How will self-driving cars be regulated?

| Updated on 02.02.2021Author / Editor: Jamie Thomson / Isabell Page

With the possibility of fully-autonomous vehicles on European roads comes the question of how to regulate the safety of people and the surrounding environment. So, what is the current state of autonomous vehicle regulation in Europe and elsewhere?

According to Allied Market Research, the global autonomous vehicle (AV) market is projected to be worth $556.67 billion by 2026, with a CAGR of 39.47%. Although most autonomous vehicles on European roads today are only semi-autonomous (levels 1-3), fully-autonomous vehicles will be here sooner than we think. Despite this growth in the automotive sector, Europe still doesn’t have comprehensive safety regulations in place for AVs.

Since autonomous driving is an emerging field, its legal landscape is still evolving and there’s some way to go until market responsibilities are fully realised. Let’s take a closer look at how self-driving might be regulated in the near-future.

The issues facing autonomous vehicle regulation

The main issue of AV regulation is in defining who should be responsible for people’s safety in the event of an accident. Self-driving cars carry an inherent product liability risk as their malfunction has the potential to compromise the safety of people and property.

It’s generally understood that the liability of level 4 and level 5 AVs should be focused on the technology used to drive the car, rather than drivers themselves, whose involvement is essentially ‘hands-off’. Car manufacturers will likely be the first port of call when it comes to pursuing insurance claims and other legal investigations. Manufacturers therefore need to fully understand their vehicles’ artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities and what variables have been used to create the final product.

Of course, building an autonomous vehicle requires collaboration and one of the biggest challenges will be assessing what went wrong in the event of an accident. Was it a hardware issue, which we might expect to be the responsibility of the vehicle manufacturer? Or a software issue, which could be the responsibility of a third-party tech company? Given all the components required to run an AV, there needs to be clear protocol for who is responsible for which element of a car’s safety.

There’s also a need to define the responsibilities of cyber security. A car can generate approximately 25 gigabytes of data every hour and as much as 4,000 gigabytes a day as McKinseys study says.

As such, the automotive industry faces the question of who whose responsibility it is to protect this data? Car owners may own the data and consent to it being used by third parties, but who should be responsible in the event of a cyber security attack? How should software vulnerabilities be monitored? How about administration best practices? Again, clear definitions need to be in place for AV regulation to be effective.

Regulation Outside of Europe

On a global scale, the United States is at the forefront of regulating self-driving cars. Earlier this year, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) published its latest report to help unify efforts in AV regulation. Its first proposition is to clarify crashworthiness standards of vehicles with automatic controls.

In China, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), alongside several other government agencies, has published a two-step plan for AV development in the country. By 2025, China aims to have a framework in place for regulating the technology, infrastructure and security of AVs.

Regulating self-driving cars in Europe

Despite Europe being farther behind in implementing AV regulation, in 2018, the European Commission published a report focusing on how to set up regulation. The report highlighted a potential strategy to support the regulation of connected and automated vehicles, looking specifically at technologies, services and infrastructure.

The report stated that the commission would work with EU countries to create ‘guidelines for national ad-hoc vehicle safety assessments of automated vehicles’ and to develop a ‘new approach for vehicle safety certification for automated vehicles’.

The guidelines were endorsed by the Technical Committee on Motor Vehicles (TCMV), so EU countries are expected to adhered to them.


The market for autonomous vehicles is growing at a rapid pace. However, as an emerging sector, its legal landscape is still in its infancy. The main issues that governments, agencies and stakeholders need to overcome is in defining where safety responsibilities lie, both in terms of the products themselves and their associated data. Both the United States and China have published a framework for AV regulation, whereas Europe is in the planning stages of how regulation might look.