Legal Implications of Autonomous Vehicles in Canada

Autonomous driving technology has become one of the most important areas of automotive research and development over the past few years. Some vehicle models that have recently reached the market include limited self-driving technology. However, automotive manufacturers continue working on technology for a truly autonomous vehicle. A proper “autonomous vehicle” or “self-driving vehicle” is a vehicle that can drive without human input or supervision. Current self-driving technology requires drivers to keep their attention on the road to take over driving if the self-driving system encounters a problem.

Although auto manufacturers and autonomous vehicle development companies promote the potential benefits of autonomous vehicles, such as offering mobility to people who cannot drive due to physical limitations or reducing transportation costs by facilitating vehicle sharing, legal experts note that autonomous vehicles will have wide-ranging impacts on the current regulatory framework governing motor vehicles. Adopting true autonomous vehicle technology will raise difficult questions for accident liability, data privacy, electronic security, road infrastructure, and challenges for the interplay between federal and provincial law.

Current Progress in Autonomous Vehicle Development

Many consumers get confused when they hear about self-driving or autonomous vehicles. While some manufacturers market their vehicles as “self-driving,” automotive engineers recognize six levels of self-driving capabilities:

  • Level 0: Complete human control. A Level 0 vehicle has no autonomous driving technology, although newer cars may have features that help with driving, such as emergency braking systems or standard cruise control.
  • Level 1: Driver assistance technology. The lowest level of automation includes vehicles that can assist with only one aspect of driving. Examples of Level 1 automation include adaptive cruise control systems that regulate a vehicle’s speed to maintain a set distance behind another vehicle as the driver focuses on other tasks like steering or braking.
  • Level 2: Partial automation. Level 2 automation includes advanced driver assistance systems that control multiple driving tasks, such as acceleration and braking and steering. However, Level 2 systems work best in ideal conditions. When vehicles encounter situations they can’t handle, systems require the driver to resume manual control.
  • Level 3: Conditional driving automation. Level 3 systems include the ability to detect environmental conditions like speed limits, road signs, road lines, and vehicles or other objects and to apply steering, braking, and acceleration in response to factors around the vehicle. However, drivers must continue paying attention to the road to take over driving if the system encounters difficulties.
  • Level 4: High automation. Level 4 systems contain redundancies that eliminate the need for a driver to intervene in all but the most serious emergencies. They stop themselves if their systems fail.
  • Level 5: Full automation. Level 5 autonomous vehicles can operate a vehicle as well as a human driver under all possible conditions. These vehicles should not need steering wheels or pedals as they will not require a driver to intervene under any circumstances.

Currently, commercially available vehicles have only reached Level 2 or 3 automation, while current prototype autonomous vehicles test Level 4 systems, and some companies are using driverless Level 4 trucks to deliver products on selected routes.

Canadian Laws Governing Autonomous Vehicles

Although provincial laws primarily govern the operation of motor vehicles on public roads and highways, federal law does regulate other aspects of motor vehicles, such as vehicle safety or testing of new vehicle technologies (like autonomous driving). At the federal level, the Motor Vehicle Safety Act governs standards for commercially available vehicles and motor vehicles operated on public roads. Several years ago, the federal government amended the Motor Vehicle Safety Act to provide temporary exemptions for vehicles testing new technologies, systems, or components, as autonomous vehicle technologies would not comply with the safety standards under the Act.

Many provinces in Canada have passed laws facilitating the development and testing of autonomous vehicle technologies. These laws include:

  • §228 of the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, which gave the Lieutenant Governor the power to authorize and regulate traffic or vehicle research projects. Under this law, the Ontario government launched the “Ontario Pilot Project.”
  • The Quebec Highway Safety Code, which adopted special rules to facilitate pilot projects for operating autonomous vehicles on public roads. Otherwise, the Highway Safety Code prohibits autonomous vehicles on public roads, except for vehicles allowed for commercial sale in Canada.
  • The Saskatchewan Traffic Safety Amendment Act 2020, which established a framework for the provincial administrator to issue regulations and permits for autonomous vehicles.
  • The Manitoba Vehicle Technology Testing Act, which authorizes provincial ministers to issue technology testing permits for autonomous vehicles.
  • New provisions of the Nova Scotia Traffic Safety Act, which establish regulations for autonomous vehicles that will come into effect upon royal proclamation.

Liability Issues with Autonomous Vehicles

One of the most critical issues surrounding autonomous vehicles involves liability when autonomous vehicles have accidents. Who bears responsibility for other people’s injuries and property damage when an autonomous vehicle hits someone while in self-driving mode? Can an injured accident victim hold the autonomous vehicle’s driver responsible for a crash when the driver wasn’t actively operating the vehicle? Would the vehicle’s manufacturer have liability for a crash caused by defects or inadequacies in the autonomous system?

With current autonomous vehicle systems, drivers must continue paying attention to the road to intervene and resume control if the system encounters a problem or may cause an accident. Therefore, a driver may have liability for a crash if they fail to intervene and take over driving. However, when Level 4 and 5 autonomous vehicles eventually hit the market, federal and provincial legislators must adopt new laws allocating accident liability among vehicle owners, “drivers,” and autonomous vehicle manufacturers.

Security and Data Privacy Concerns

Technology security experts have also expressed concerns about the possibility that nefarious actors may compromise autonomous vehicle systems, especially if vehicles can connect to the internet or have wireless access to vehicle systems. Doomsday scenarios imagine autonomous vehicles getting hacked, allowing hackers to take control of vehicles to crash them into one another or kidnap occupants.

Security experts have also raised data privacy concerns for autonomous vehicles. Bad actors accessing an autonomous vehicle’s GPS logs can discover where the vehicle has driven, information that can facilitate serious crimes like blackmail or stalking. Vehicle owners will also want to maintain privacy in their itinerary. 

Autonomous vehicle safety regulations must include rules to protect vehicle systems from tampering or intrusion to prevent others from gaining remote control of vehicles to cause accidents, attack people or buildings, or injure or kidnap vehicle occupants. Autonomous vehicle regulations should also focus on data security to prevent third parties from accessing information about the vehicle’s destination history.

Road Infrastructure Readiness for Autonomous Vehicles

Federal and provincial governments must also prepare road/highway infrastructure for Level 4 and 5 autonomous vehicles. High-automation vehicles rely on sensors and GPS data to build a picture of the environment that self-driving systems use to control steering, acceleration, and braking. However, current Level 3 systems frequently have trouble on poorly maintained roads, including roads with worn or missing road lines or broken/missing/obstructed road signs. Due to the heavy wear and tear that Canadian weather can have on roads and highways, governments may find it challenging to maintain roads in a condition suitable for autonomous driving systems.

Many autonomous vehicle advocates also envision self-driving systems that wirelessly link with road infrastructure to facilitate things like redirecting vehicles onto alternate routes due to heavy traffic or road closures or provide critical benefits like making it easier for vehicles to keep to their lane on the road. Governments may need to adopt appropriate regulatory frameworks for vehicle-to-infrastructure technology and invest in equipping road infrastructure with the necessary technology to communicate with autonomous vehicles.

Other Regulatory Challenges for Autonomous Vehicles

In Canada, federal and provincial laws regulate motor vehicles and their use. The federal and provincial governments will need to coordinate to avoid potential conflicts in autonomous vehicle regulations and prevent legal gaps. If federal and provincial laws miss any legal implications posed by autonomous vehicles, it could lead to potentially costly litigation and confusion as manufacturers, consumers, and courts try to fill those gaps.

The federal government may also need to ensure cooperation and compatibility between Canadian laws and international standards for autonomous vehicles. Auto manufacturers will want to avoid a situation where numerous countries have different regulations and safety standards since manufacturers must comply with each standard to sell their autonomous vehicles in those countries. Working with other government and intergovernmental agencies will help auto manufacturers bring autonomous vehicles to market.

Of course, as companies continue to develop and test autonomous vehicle technology, self-driving cars will pose other legal implications that no one has ever thought of. Regulators must keep a close eye on autonomous vehicle development and use it to anticipate future legal challenges and implications for this technology.

Contact a Car Accident Lawyer After an Accident with an Autonomous Vehicle

If you’ve suffered injuries or property damage in a collision with an autonomous vehicle, a car accident lawyer can help you explore your legal options for recovering compensation. Contact Wagners today for an initial case evaluation. Let’s discuss your right to pursue a claim against an autonomous vehicle manufacturer.


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