An interesting article in the Financial Times discussed some of the serious problems surrounding the current push by automakers and technology companies to create a driverless car. Though movies like Minority Report made it look easy, experts are only starting to dig into some of the complicated legal liability issues posed by the self-driving cars. There is definitely a huge amount of enthusiasm for the prospect of a robotically-driven vehicle. Google has poured billions into perfecting its technology, while experts say GM, Ford, Toyota, Nissan and others are also in the early stages of developing similar vehicles. The innovative area is attracting attention and could potentially attract big bucks; some estimates say that the market for driverless vehicles could top $5 trillion.
Experts believe that that fully autonomous driving could be a reality as soon as 2025. State legislatures have taken notice and several have already passed laws allowing limited use of self-driving automobiles. Google recently revealed that it has gone more than 300,000 miles in self-driving cars without a single accident. Of all the self-driven cars on the road today there have only been three reported collisions, and all three were the fault of other drivers.
Obviously no technology is perfect, however, thus the real question from a legal standpoint is exactly who will be liable when a car is either partially or totally driving itself. Is it the car owner? The car manufacturer? Suppliers? Perhaps even the company that made the software controlling the car? The worry is that concerns over liability could be what hold the technology back, as companies fear moving forward and risking untold fortunes on future wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits.
Some suspect that liability would likely extend to the owners of the vehicles in any cases where they either interfered with or changed the autopilot settings of the car. In other cases, where the driver did nothing to lead to the accident, it is likely lawsuits would proceed as defective product claims against manufacturers.
A potential solution being floated by some is the model currently used by vaccine suppliers. Experts say that the two situations are similar in that both help reduce injury and death overall but can occasionally lead to serious harm in individual instances. As a result, a trust fund exists to compensate those who have been injured by vaccines while simultaneously shielding the vaccine industry from potentially disastrous lawsuits.
Currently these are all just ideas being debated theoretically. Legal experts acknowledge that it is almost impossible to predict what the legal future holds for driverless cars and that the court systems will need time to test on the issue before a consensus is ever developed.