Self driving cars are poised to be a hugely significant technological breakthrough. If companies like Tesla, Uber, Google, and many others are to be believed, self-driving cars will usher in a new, better era of transportation which, according to these companies, will include the fact that self driving cars will be safer to operate and ride in than traditional vehicles.
However, claims regarding the supposed safety of self-driving cars are, like the technology still under development, often more fiction than fact. Self-driving cars can lead to a host of thorny legal issues, and promise to usher in an era of confusion both regarding liability, and driver and passenger safety in the years and decades to come. At the Bruning Law Firm, we’ve studied self-driving cars, including the legal and safety issues that they present, and have made ourselves experts on issues flowing from their increased usage. Here are only a few of the larger considerations we may be facing when self-driving cars become as ubiquitous as promised:
Do Self Driving Cars Remove Human Fault?
Proponents of self-driving cars argue that removing a driver from the car will decrease accidents, because human error will no longer be a factor. Although it is doubtlessly true that human drivers won’t be driving self-driving cars, the machinery and software used to control these vehicles will certainly be designed, in whole or in part, by humans.
Whereas human fault while driving might result in a single accident, a human fault in the design, manufacturing, installation, or maintenance of a self-driving car might result in many, many accidents, particularly if the design flaw has been included in many vehicles. This means that humans won’t be taken out of the equation at all: just that different humans (this time, engineers, software developers, and car manufacturers) will be responsible, instead of an individual driver.
Claims that there will be fewer (or more) accidents as a result of self-driving cars are therefore yet to be determined—but it’s absolutely certain that a driverless car doesn’t mean one that is without the possibility of human error.
If No One is Driving, Who is at Fault?
When a driverless car gets into an accident, resulting in damage or injury to another driver, passengers, pedestrian, or property, an immediate threshold question is who is to blame for the accident. As lawyers put this, we are looking for on what party to assign liability.
Part of the answer to this question lies with exactly how “driverless” a driverless car is said to be. For example, can the car be operated manually in any manner? If so, was it being operated manually at the time of the accident, or did the driver have an opportunity to take control? Was the driver informed of this opportunity?
Beyond the fault of the driver, driverless cars may present an opportunity to pursue product liability claims against the designer, manufacturer, distributor, or reseller of the vehicle. For example, was the accident caused by a design fault in the vehicle’s software, or hardware? Was the driverless equipment improperly manufactured, or improperly installed? In these cases, companies involved in the production of driverless vehicles may find themselves significantly on the hook for what might be massive claims against them, particularly if such claims are pooled among many impacted drivers.
Insurance companies who provide car insurance may, similarly, be required to re-think their basic models of insurance. For example, if a passenger in a driverless vehicle is struck by another driverless vehicle, how might fault be apportioned? Would it even be relevant to have insurance on each vehicle, if the passengers of each vehicle would have a strong product liability claim against the designer or manufacturer of the vehicle? Can software or hardware be at “fault,” for example, if the software and hardware were functionally perfectly, yet an accident still occurred?
Cars May Break the Law
While driverless cars may do a better job than humans in following the letter of the law, there are numerous scenarios in which a human might “break” the letter of the law to avoid a more serious accident. For example, a human driver would gladly cross the double yellow lines of a road to avoid hitting a pedestrian, or run through a red light to clear the area for an emergency vehicle. Driverless cars would therefore need to understand this “situational awareness” level of thinking to understand where and in what manners it would be appropriate to break the letter of the law, in favor of preventing a more serious incident.
New Laws Needed
The era of driverless cars might also instigate a new round of lawmaking throughout the country, in which states and the federal government pass new laws and regulations intended to protect against some of the issues discussed here. Some states have already passed laws permitting driverless cars to operate, while other states have banned them entirely. Because many traffic laws are state, county, or even municipality-specific, there will doubtlessly be confusion in the near future, as some governments innovate and adapt faster than others. Those who own and ride in driverless cars may need to be mindful of where they are being driven, or else risk violating the laws in that given city, county, or state.
What Does the Future Hold?
Driving is doubtlessly a dangerous activity. Over 1 million people are killed each year as a result of traffic accidents, and human error is the primary cause of death in such accidents. However, simply because driverless cars are capable of following the letter of the law, and would never drive drunk, intoxicated, or be distracted by a text message, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are inherently safer than human-operated vehicles. As driverless cars become more common, doubtlessly many legal issues and hurdles will need to be resolved, and those discussed here are only a small smattering of the many issues at play.
Ready to Help
Our team of attorneys at the Bruning Law firm will continue to closely monitor developments in this space, and are ready to be at the cutting edge as law and society innovate in this new direction.