As automakers, tech companies, and the government push to make driverless cars a reality, customers and legal experts consider the implications on auto accidents and liability. Who will be responsible in the event of a crash? How will courts and states govern this new technology? Our team of auto accident attorneys considers the legal implications of self-driving cars below.
Last week, the Obama administration announced a $4 billion program to implement driverless car pilot programs over the next ten years. The program will need approval from Congress, as it is part of the 2017 fiscal budget, but the announcement marks a significant change of course. This is the first time the government has acknowledged the inevitability of self-driving cars on our roadways.
In addition to the billions of dollars in testing, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will soon propose guidelines for the auto industry regarding safe practices. As we have seen with the popularization of drones, it is important to draft updated laws and regulate safe operation protocols before new technology is introduced to public markets.
Our Driverless Future
Nissan recently announced it would introduce ten new driverless vehicles before 2020. Uber plans to open an autonomous driver research facility with Carnegie Mellon University. Lyft recently received $500 million from General Motors to create an on-demand network on driverless vehicles. Tesla's Model S was fitted with an Autopilot feature in 2015, which its CEO said was better than a person. Google has already deployed at least 50 driverless cars on public California roads.
So where does this leave the average consumer? There is a big difference between completely autonomous cars operated without any human assistance and vehicles with advanced technology that aid drivers in difficult or unexpected conditions. In the near future, the public can expect their vehicles to take more control in certain circumstances, such as stopping and starting, on curving roads, while changing lanes, and passing through intersections.
Experts agree that entirely driverless cars like those Google is testing are still at least ten years away from public introduction.
In the meantime, even the most high-tech new vehicles will require human supervision. The Tesla Autopilot system, for example, allows drivers to remove their hands from the wheel, but warns them to regain control shortly after. The system does not slow down to anticipate turns, however, among several other alarming inadequacies.
The auto industry is referring to this as the handoff problem, with no easy solution. One of the main concerns is that drivers will pay less attention to road conditions, so when an emergency situation occurs, they will be unable to regain control in time to prevent a serious accident. This creates an entirely new set of hazards and new arguments over liability.
Manufacturer, Public, and Insurance Liability
Products liability is a vast, constantly-evolving area of law with several theories of liability. Among these theories include design defects; manufacturing negligence; and breach of contract. All manufacturers, including automakers, have a responsibility to make safe products and disclose all possible risks to consumers. Driverless cars, just like all other products, must have a clear legal role.
Some experts argue that completely autonomous cars should themselves be deemed liable for injuries and accident. This would require us to define robotic cars as separate insurable beings with legal responsibilities. Others believe the companies that make the vehicles, like Google or Nissan, should assume liability. Still others point out that consumers own insurance policies should be amended to detail owners legal responsibilities.
Some companies are taking the legal issue into their own hands. Volvo recently announced it would accept full liability whenever its cars are in autonomous mode. Google and Mercedes Benz have made similar announcements.
Current international laws require vehicles to be under human control. Google is lobbying states to change legislation, but lawmakers have been slow on the uptake. California still requires Google's 50 autonomous cars to have a driver behind the wheel. Three other states have passed laws welcoming self-driving cars on public roads: Nevada, Michigan and Florida. Each self-driving car is required to have $5 million insurance.
Though automakers are currently solely liable for accidents caused by driverless cars, it remains an outstanding and controversial issue for lawmakers and industry insiders. Our team of auto accident lawyers will continue to update this blog on NHTSA guidelines, new state laws, and other legal issues surrounding driverless cars.
We have been representing individuals and families injured in auto accidents for over 30 years. We offer free legal consultations to victims nationwide.