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Even as semi-autonomous vehicles, such as the Tesla Model S, are being sold to consumers, few jurisdictions have set parameters around where, when and how to drive them.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Until Canadians own cars that truly drive themselves, they can forget getting off the legal hook if they're in an accident with a vehicle that still has a steering wheel, suggests a report from Canada's biggest law firm.

Under Canada's common-law legal system, driving in semi-autonomous mode isn't much different than operating a vehicle with cruise control, the brief issued by Borden Ladner Gervais says.

"As long as a driver with some ability to assume or resume control of the vehicle is present, there would seem to be a continuing basis for driver negligence and liability as they presently exist," said the report entitled Autonomous Vehicles, Revolutionizing Our World, published this week on the firm's website.

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The report comes as the federal government contemplates developing regulations for automated vehicles. Ottawa set aside $7.3-million over two years in the spring budget to improve motor-vehicle safety, with part of that money earmarked for developing new rules for self-driving cars.

But until fully autonomous vehicles hit the consumer market, there's not much need to enact new laws, BLG partner and report author Kevin LaRoche says.

"With regards to driver liability, common law, coupled with the current legislation, may be sufficient to address liability involving all levels of autonomous vehicles, short of fully autonomous vehicles which do not require any level of human control," Mr. LaRoche wrote.

"For fully autonomous vehicles, it would seem that legislative amendments would be required to clarify whether the owner would be vicariously liable and under what circumstances."

Several jurisdictions have allowed testing of fully autonomous cars, buses and trucks. Ontario launched a program in January – under specific restrictions – to let auto manufacturers and high-tech companies try out their driverless inventions on the province's roadways. None of the carmakers had applied for a testing permit under the program as of early July.

But with semi-autonomous vehicles – such as the Tesla Model S – already being sold to consumers, few jurisdictions have yet put legislative parentheses around where, when and how to drive them.

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