The 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic, which the United States and several other countries have ratified, states the following (emphasis added):

Chapter II, Article 8, Section 1 (reprinted in full):
Every vehicle or combination of vehicles proceeding as a unit shall have a driver.

Chapter I, Article 4, Section 1 (reprinted in relevant part):
"Driver" means any person who drives a vehicle, including cycles, or guides draught, pack or saddle animals or herds or flocks on a road, or who is in actual physical control of the same; "Motor vehicle" means any self-propelled vehicle normally used for the transport of persons or goods upon a road, other than vehicles running on rails or connected to electric conductors.

Does this mean that countries subject to the treaty are not allowed to permit on-road testing of vehicles with highly automated driving functionality, which do not have human safety drivers (like what Waymo and many other companies already doing)?

Why might this treaty be seen as an issue in Japan but not the US?

  • 1
    Why would anyone have bothered including this provision in 1949?
    – Obie 2.0
    Jan 22, 2018 at 20:10
  • @Obie2.0 radio-controlled aircraft have existed since 1935 (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/…), so presumably someone with enough money and motivation could have built a full-size RC car in 1949. It's arguable whether or not an RC car has a driver (if your control goes through a radio link, is it physical control?), but prohibiting this might have been the intent. Alternatively, it might have just been a case of "this is a bad idea that someone might have someday; let's ban it." Driverless cars would...
    – Someone
    Jan 8 at 7:29
  • definitely have sounded like a bad idea in 1949.
    – Someone
    Jan 8 at 7:30

2 Answers 2


Why might this treaty be seen as an issue in Japan but not the US?

In the U.S., when there is a conflict between a treaty and a statute enacted by Congress, the last enacted law controls. So, any U.S. law passed by Congress after 1949 could override the Geneva Convention of 1949 on this topic. I am not certain that Congress has passed such a law, but it seems likely that it has done so.

In Japan (and most countries), a domestic statute cannot override an international treaty which can only be abrogated in the manner set forth in the treaty.

U.S. law is also more likely to hold that a treaty is not "self-executing" than Japanese law, on average, so many treaties are not considered directly enforceable under U.S. law until an implementing statute is passed, even though other countries would consider the same treaty to be directly enforceable without implementing domestic legislation.

Of course, either country could argue that an "AI" was a person who just happened to give their instructions much earlier than a usual driver. But, that wouldn't explain a distinction between the U.S. and Japan. One could also argue that a self-driving car comes within the "electric conductors" exception.

  • House Resolution 3388 and Senate Bill 1885 are the most likely bills for Congress to pass, and one of them probably will pass this Congress, but neither has done so yet. It'd be nice to see further support for the assertion in this answer that Congress can override any treaty just by passing a law that conflicts with it.
    – WBT
    Jan 22, 2018 at 22:06
  • @WBT I wouldn't be surprised if there was some earlier federal legislation authorizing self-driving cars at least on an experimental test basis.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 22, 2018 at 22:07
  • That's what these bills are designed for. I believe the closest the federal government has gotten is NHTSA's guidance (latest version here); most of the explicitly permissive legislation has come from states and smaller political subdivisions, who seem even less likely able to override international treaties.
    – WBT
    Jan 22, 2018 at 22:10
  • The vehicles contain but are not "connected to electric conductors" while in use; they are surrounded by electrically insulating material. Also, the AIs aren't just following instructions given earlier about how to drive; their understanding of how to drive is unintelligible to humans and based on human instructions about how to learn how to drive. By analogy, your driver's ed teacher could not be said to be giving advance instructions to your car.
    – WBT
    Jan 22, 2018 at 22:14

Self-driving cars meet this requirement anyway

Let’s use Google as an example. Their self-driving cars are operated by software which is owned by Google. The “person” driving the car is therefore Google, more particularly the specific corporate subsidiary that owns the IP. Companies are people too.

  • 1
    So companies can vote?
    – user6726
    Jan 23, 2018 at 1:16
  • @user6726 they can in local government elections in NSW, Australia. The rights they have are not necessarily the same as those of a natural person.
    – Dale M
    Jan 23, 2018 at 2:47
  • The notion that companies are persons is a peculiarity of US law.
    – MSalters
    Jan 24, 2018 at 8:53
  • 1
    @MSalters and Australian law, and UK law and French law and Kenyan law and Chinese law and ...
    – Dale M
    Jan 24, 2018 at 9:49
  • 1
    AFAICT those other systems have corporate personhood, which means that companies are treated as if they were persons in specific legal contexts. They don't need special exceptions to keep family law from applying to companies. And by the same logic, they don't need special exceptions for traffic law either.
    – MSalters
    Jan 24, 2018 at 10:20

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