Driverless cars could soon become a reality on our streets and highways. The technology for autonomous vehicles is developing quickly and states are beginning to enact regulation in anticipation of the arrival of driverless cars. Several major companies are developing prototype autonomous vehicles including General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, Google, Audi AG, Toyota Motor Company and Oxford University. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has estimated that up to 75 percent of all vehicles will be autonomous by 2040.

But, in the last year, various news sources have reported that fear of increased liability may limit the roll out of driverless cars. As the Wall Street Journal explained, when there is no driver, the possible targets of a lawsuit expands to the company that designed the technology, the car’s owner, the passenger who failed to intervene, or the auto maker, to name a few. U-T San Diego reported that some experts believe the issue of liability, if not solved, could delay or even prevent the widespread use of driverless cars.

Several states have begun answering some of the liability questions at issue by passing legislation in anticipation of autonomous vehicles. California, the District of Columbia, Florida, Michigan, and Nevada, have all enacted autonomous vehicle regulation.

The District of Columbia, Florida, Nevada and Michigan statutes protect original manufacturers from liability for defects introduced by a third party who converts a standard vehicle into an autonomous vehicle. California’s statute is silent on manufacturers’ liability but it does have specific requirements for “operators” or those seated in the driver’s seat of autonomous vehicles.

Some legal scholars believe that although driverless cars can increase safety by reducing vehicle collisions, they will still “increase the liability exposure of vehicle manufacturers. Autonomous vehicles will shift the responsibility for avoiding accidents from the driver to the vehicle manufacturer.” Bryant Walker Smith, an assistant professor at Stanford University Law School, has said, we won’t really know how to determine what “safe” means in the context of driverless cars until there are actual driverless cars on the roads. Until then, there will continue to be legal uncertainty with respect to liability.