A new law in California regulating consumer notices for semiautonomous vehicles went into effect on January 1, 2023. SB 1398, applies to the sale of new passenger vehicles equipped with a partial driving automation feature, or the provision of any software update or vehicle update that adds a partial driving automation feature. Any dealer or manufacturer selling such vehicles or providing such updates are required to give a clear description of the feature's functions and limitations. The law further prohibits manufacturers and dealers from deceptively marketing partial automation features. According to the bill's sponsor, Democratic state senator Lena Gonzalez, the new law is meant to increase consumer safety. The goal is to avoid confusion among consumers that a vehicle has fully autonomous features when the vehicle only has functions similar to cruise control that still require the attention and active participation of its driver. The new law comes at a time of increasing scrutiny of semiautonomous vehicles in the wake of several high profile accidents, investigations, and lawsuits involving semiautonomous vehicles.

The law builds upon existing state law requiring new motor vehicles to have certain notices to consumers provided to buyers or affixed to the vehicles. SB 1398 adds a new section, Section 24011.5, to the Vehicle Code. The law defines “partial driving automation feature” as meaning the same as “Level 2 partial driving automation” in the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Standard J3016 (April 2021). Cal. Veh. Code § 24011.5(c). At a high level, a “Level 2 partial driving automation” is a feature that performs part of a dynamic driving task on a sustained basis, disengages upon driver request, and requires the driver to perform the remainder of the dynamic driving task, supervise the automation feature, intervene as necessary to maintain operation of the vehicle, and determine whether engagement or disengagement of the feature is appropriate. The Society of Automotive Engineers paper describes a scale of automation features from Level 0 (No Driving Automation) to Level 5 (Full Driving Automation), and thus Level 2 is on the lower end of automation features and requires significant participation from the driver.

The new law requires dealers and manufacturers, at the time of a sale or upgrade that includes a partial driving automation feature, to “provid[e] the buyer or owner with a distinct notice that provides the name of the feature and clearly describes the functions and limitations of the feature.” Cal. Veh. Code § 24011.5(a). The new law is also clear on the relationship and respective obligations of manufacturers and dealers in complying with the notice requirement. Manufacturers are required to provide dealers with the information needed to comply with the notice requirement “[b]efore delivering a passenger vehicle equipped with a partial driving automation feature.” Cal. Veh. Code § 24011.5(e). Dealers are entitled to “reasonably rely on the information provided by the manufacturer and a dealer shall not be held in violation of subdivision (a) if the manufacturer fails to provide this information to the dealer or if the information provided is deemed to be not in compliance with this section.” Cal. Veh. Code § 24011.5(e). Conversely, “[a] manufacturer shall not be held in violation of subdivision (a) if the manufacturer provides a dealer with the information required under subdivision (e) and the dealer fails to provide the required notice to the buyer or owner.” Cal. Veh. Code § 24011.5(f).

As a result, manufacturers need to ensure that they have identified which features and upgrades fall within the definition of “partial driving automation feature,” and provide the necessary information for the required consumer notice to all dealers in California. Dealers need to ensure that they are providing these notices along to all buyers or owners of upgraded vehicles. 

The law also prohibits manufacturers and dealers from describing partial driving automation features “in marketing materials, using language that implies or would otherwise lead a reasonable person to believe, that the feature allows the function as an autonomous vehicle, as defined in Section 38750, or otherwise has a functionality not actually included in the feature.” Cal. Veh. Code § 24011.5(b). A violation “shall be considered a misleading advertisement for the purposes of Section 11713,” the section of California's Vehicle Code that lists specific kinds of false and misleading advertisements in the context of vehicle sales. As with all other areas of marketing, manufacturers and dealers must take care to ensure all marketing materials accurately describe partial driving automation features and avoid falsely implying a particular vehicle can function fully independently of its driver.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.