Driverless cars seem like an amazing prospect. Given that most crashes are the result of human error – i.e., impairment, speeding, fatigue, carelessness, distraction, etc. – the idea that a fully-automated system could drive our cars for us and take away that margin of error is an exciting notion. tunneldriving

Many large companies are jumping on the bandwagon. General Motors recently announced a $500 investment in ride-sharing company Lyft as part of a joint venture to develop self-driving vehicles. Shortly after that, Tesla announced it was hiring a former Apple and AMD software architect veteran to spearhead its Autopilot Engineering team. Other big companies – Google, Apple, Nissan, Uber, Mercedes-Benz, Bosch and Delphi Automotive – each have their own programs in development for self-driving cars.

Still, we may need to hit the brakes on the idea for a while. Aside from the technical challenges that remain, the bigger issue is the regulatory and liability issues.

Driverless cars would effectively give us a 3,000-pound death machine with no human at the helm. So then let’s say there is a crash. Let’s say someone is hurt. Who is going to be liable for that? The vehicle manufacturer? The software developer? The human who is not in control?

Human drivers may make driving judgments that technically break the law, but are in fact the safer option. An example would be crossing a yellow line to go around a double-parked car. But are software companies or vehicle manufacturers going to program their vehicles to break traffic laws? What about when traffic laws vary from state-to-state?

And then there is the question of insurance. Are insurance companies going to need to cover the individual car or the vehicle owner? And in that case, who is actually responsible for a crash? The navigation system? The software company? The manufacturer? The person in the car who isn’t driving?

In a recent survey taken by more than 200 experts in the autonomous vehicle field, the top three obstacles to driverless vehicles in our future would be:

  • Legal liability
  • Policymakers
  • Customer acceptance

There are some who say that at least when it comes to long-distance trucks, driverless vehicles will be here sooner than we think. At the very least, automated systems could do the dangerous, long-distance work on the highway, and then the driver would take over once the vehicle reaches the destination city limits. That would potentially allow companies to have hauls delivered much faster, without running afoul of hours of service rules.

But this still leaves serious questions about who would be liable if that truck crashed? After all, no machine is full-proof.

There are a number of theories about this. Recently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that when it comes to self-driving vehicles, the car manufacturer – not the human passenger – will be liable.

The Washington Post recently explored this issue in-depth. First, the report suggested that car accidents may increasingly become a matter of product liability. That is, vehicle manufacturers will face intense scrutiny in crashes, with victims likely asserting the maker is liable because the car didn’t operate as intended.

That could mean many crash cases could ultimately be filed against Google and other software giants. So if the courts establish a duty of care owed by software companies to road users, those software companies will need to make sure they are covered with adequate liability insurance, and most cases would likely be settled.

But even given the noted position of federal regulators, the states have yet to weigh in on it, and that’s really the basis of how insurance companies will structure their plans – and how injured parties will ultimately be paid.

If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:

The big question about driverless cars no one seems to be able to answer, Feb. 17, 2016, By Brian Fung, The Washington Post

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Wrong-Way Driver Kills Self, Pedestrian and Injures 7, Feb. 25, 2016, Miami Car Accident Attorney Blog