Autonomous vehicle iconThere have been rapid advances in vehicle technology, with an increased use of sensors and faster computer processing in vehicles. These developments have enabled ever-increasing levels of functions to be controlled by the vehicle, rather than the driver.

In the past few years, vehicles that can drive themselves without human intervention on public roads have gone from being science fiction to practical reality.

What are autonomous and driverless vehicles?

Vehicle automation can range from full autonomy, where no human intervention is required, to vehicles where human intervention may be required under certain conditions.

Different countries and different companies are using different terms to describe these new technologies, including ‘driverless’, ‘self driving’, ‘automated’ and ‘autonomous’ vehicles.

Because of the issues raised by different types of technology, it is necessary to be able to distinguish different levels of vehicle autonomy. In particular, we can distinguish systems by their degree of autonomy (that is, how much intervention is required by the human driver) and by the functions that are autonomous (for example, keeping the vehicle in a lane at a constant speed, or automatically braking to avoid obstacles).

Semi-autonomous vehicle iconWhile public attention has tended to focus on the promise of fully autonomous vehicles, having vehicles with less than full autonomy can substantially contribute towards the ultimate goal of having safer vehicles on our roads.

The United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provides a useful framework to help thinking through the implications of these technology developments. It defines vehicle automation as having five levels(external link).

Figure 1 below, taken from an Austroads(external link) presentation, summarises the US classification. Other organisations have developed similar classifications. Many of the specific control functions referred to are included in the Ministry’s Vehicle Standards Inventory(external link).


Figure 1 - Levels of vehicle automation identified by NHTSA

Although the numbered levels in the NHTSA classification suggest a progression of technology from partial to full vehicle autonomy, the market will almost certainly not develop in such a linear manner. We can expect a mix of approaches from vehicle suppliers. For example, while traditional vehicle manufacturers are starting with the automation of specific functions (for example, adaptive cruise control and lane keeping technology) or automation under specific circumstances (for example, highway driving), Google is attempting to automate all driving functions.

Photo of a Google car


In 2014 Ministry staff were hosted by Google Project X(external link) and experienced the company’s self-driving car technology in operation.


In 2015 Ministry staff were hosted by Nissan and saw that company’s self-driving car.

The United Kingdom Department for Transport’s review The pathway to driverless cars: a detailed review of regulations for automated vehicle technologies (2015)(external link) includes in Annex A, a useful summary of international developments.

Autonomous vehicles will pose a number of challenges

Fully autonomous vehicles, which may not even have a steering wheel or brakes for an operator to use, will likely not require any major changes to New Zealand infrastructure for them to operate here. Rather, they are likely to operate on our existing roads, using their own onboard sensors to control the vehicle’s movement. Because these vehicles are not yet available commercially, the Ministry of Transport has to date focused on the issues around them being tested on New Zealand roads.

The Ministry of Transport has a work programme to clarify the current legal situation that applies to the deployment of autonomous vehicles in New Zealand. Section 4.14 (page 25) of the government’s Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) Technology Action Plan  [PDF, 177 KB]specifically relates to autonomous vehicles. This includes the following action:

Government actions to promote New Zealand internationally as a test-bed for new technologies

The Ministry of Transport, in conjunction with the NZ Transport Agency, will review transport legislation to clarify the legality of testing   driverless cars in New Zealand. This will specifically consider the issues of liability associated with testing, but will not consider liability for general use.

The work programme has a range of possible outcomes – one being a law to set requirements for driverless vehicles. However, there are no immediate plans to do this. The relevant excerpt from Section 4.14 of the ITS Action Plan reads:

Internationally there is a great deal of thought being given to what laws will be necessary for the general operation of driverless vehicles. Their widespread operation will pose complex legal challenges, especially to determine liability in the event of any accident. It is not proposed that the New Zealand government will explicitly look at these legal issues at this time. Rather, the government will continue to monitor international developments and draw on this knowledge once international thinking has developed further and it is clearer if or when these vehicles will be commercially available.

Legal issues

Autonomous vehicles will present a range of new legal issues. The Ministry of Transport has started to look at legal issues associated with testing such vehicles.

There are no obvious legal barriers to the deployment of autonomous vehicles for testing in New Zealand. Unlike some countries, NZ law has no explicit requirement for a driver to be present. However, autonomous vehicles could raise issues about who is at fault if they were to crash.

In addition to the issues of liability in the event of an accident or offence, the Government’s key concern is to ensure public safety of testing or use of autonomous vehicles. The Ministry considers that, between the Police’s general powers to ensure public safety, and the specific powers of the New Zealand Transport Agency to place conditions on the operation of vehicles (when the vehicles need permits to operate on our roads), there are sufficient controls in New Zealand to ensure the safety of testing of autonomous vehicles on public roads