Driverless Cars and the Future of Auto Accident Lawsuits

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Though progress has been slow and many people have their doubts, there’s little question that driverless cars are the future of the automobile industry — at least someday, but probably sooner than you think.

There’s plenty of potential for self-driving cars to bring about a new era of safer roads. A computer can be counted on to make fewer mistakes than a human driver, and there’s no risk of a robotic car being distracted, texting while driving, driving recklessly or driving while intoxicated.

But driverless cars will never be fully perfect, either, and accidents are bound to happen. In the event of a serious accident caused by a driverless car, who will be held liable for the damages?

It’s a thorny question that ethicists, lawyers and insurance companies have been debating since driverless cars were a strictly sci-fi concept. But now that fully-functioning prototypes are out on the roads, it’s one that requires a serious answer.

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Driverless cars today

Self-driving cars have been designed, built and operational for some time now — but rigorous safety testing is necessary before they can join regular, human-controlled vehicles on the roads. However, several tests have already been conducted in which these prototypes were out on the streets.

The ride-share company Uber added a small number of autonomous vehicles to its fleet in San Francisco in December 2016. Users requesting a ride from Uber could choose between a self-driving car or one driven by a person, for the same price. Even the autonomous cars did have a human driver behind the wheel, watching the car’s actions and ready to take control at a moment’s notice if anything went wrong.

Within hours, the state of California ordered the program to be shut down, citing a lack of a permit. But without missing a beat, Uber shipped its autonomous cars out to Arizona, where the government announced the pilot program was welcome and would face less bureaucratic restrictions.

The early days of autonomous cars on the road have been going well, with the most common complaint being that the robot drivers are a little too cautious. But their record isn’t entirely clean. In February 2016, 10 months before the first San Francisco test with Uber, a Google driverless car crashed into a bus. The Google car crash was minor as the autonomous car was only going 2 mph, but it was still concerning — and underlined the need to be legally prepared for more such self driving car accidents.

Determining liability in Accidents in Driverless Cars

As with any new technology, it’s important for the legal framework to be in place before it becomes commonplace, and lawyers have been scrambling to come to a consensus on how to handle a driverless car crash. As with any lawsuit, the key is how to determine liability. In the event of a driverless car crash, is the human owner at fault, or the company responsible for the software?

The most likely result is that a self driving car accident would be litigated as a product liability lawsuit. A driverless car crash would be considered a catastrophic product failure, and the manufacturer would be held liable. But it would have to be proven that the car’s design was flawed, and that its software failed at something it could reasonably have been expected to do. Even if everyday accidents between two normal cars on the road, it can be difficult to determine fault, and the introduction of autonomous vehicles makes the whole matter more complicated.

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