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October 4, 2016

Who will take the blame in the age of autonomous vehicles?

by: Lance Oliver

Have you ever been driving down the road and been cut off? Of course, you have. The first thing you think is “who is driving that car?!” With advances in technology, the answer to that question could soon be “no one.”

In June, General Motors President Dan Ammann told reporters that the ever-evolving auto industry will “see more change in the next five years than there’s been in the last 50.” A bold statement, perhaps, but there’s no doubting its truth given the industry’s ambitions for the autonomous vehicle.

Manufacturers have touted for years that the next wave of innovation will bring driverless cars that can think for themselves and enhance safety by all but removing human error from the equation. It may sound like science fiction, but autonomous vehicles are on the brink of mass production, and it’s time we take a serious look at societal shifts they’ll likely spark. This is just as true for the law as it is the automotive industry.

Unanswered questions about self-driving vehicles

Historically, determining responsibility in a traffic accident has revolved around two questions: Who did what, and why? Motorists, police officers, and – perhaps most of all – insurance companies, may soon find, however, that the advent of the autonomous vehicle will add a layer of complexity that we’ve never before tackled. If, for example, a driverless car careens into a car in a neighboring lane, or even into a child who darted unexpectedly into the road, who takes the blame? The human being in the driver’s seat? Or the technology that was trusted to prevent this sort of thing from happening in the first place?

Auto manufacturers have assured the public that final control over autonomous vehicles and the ability to intervene will continue to rest in the hands of the driver. Their assurances provide some peace of mind. But future plaintiffs will one day have to consider whether auto manufacturers have quietly (but intentionally) implied that responsibility still lies with motorists. In a not-so-distant future, ordinary wrecks involving autonomous vehicles potentially mean complex product liability claims in court that the technology is lacking, and the manufacturer is responsible. These cases will not implicate a single car or driver. They will implicate all cars that use the same technology.

Autonomous doesn’t mean perfect

The question of whether self-driving technology means that the vehicle is ‘perfect’ was posed in February after Google’s autonomous Lexus SUV merged into a city bus in California while attempting to navigate its way around a pile of sand bags on the side of the road.

Google stated at the time that “in this case, we clearly bear some responsibility, because if our car hadn’t moved there wouldn’t have been a collision.” Fortunately, the SUV was only traveling about 2 mph and no injuries were reported. Clearly the answer is “no.” Self-driving technology will never equal perfect.

In May, however, a motorist was killed when the Tesla Motors Inc. vehicle he was driving in autopilot mode failed to detect an 18-wheeler on its sensor system and attempted to drive, full speed, beneath the truck. Reports indicated that the deceased man may have been watching a movie when the wreck occurred, reinforcement that he trusted Tesla’s technology to safely be in control

Neither incident readily answered many questions about how such cases would be handled judicially in the future. What they did do, however, is feed calls to push out federal regulations that establish safety guidelines and oversee the development and testing of such vehicles before they end up on the road.

Sixteen states introduced legislation to that effect in 2015, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In all, eight states have gone so far as to pass legislation: Nevada, California, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, North Dakota, Tennessee and Utah, in addition to Washington D.C. Also, the governor of Arizona signed an executive order encouraging relevant agencies to “undertake any necessary steps to support the testing and operation of self-driving vehicles on public roads within Arizona.” More states are bound to follow suit with time, and motorists will be safer for it.  

This all goes to show that auto manufacturers aren’t the only ones facing a paradigm shift brought on by autonomous vehicles. The scope of the consequences remain vastly uncertain.  But in order to prepare, motorists, lawmakers, the courts, and countless others must start by, first, asking the questions.