Science fiction is quickly becoming a reality with driverless vehicles. We’re one step closer to a world with autonomous vehicles, as companies work to onboard the technology. What’s the state of driverless technology now, and how can we expect it to change the world of legal liability? The answers are complex and multifaceted.

The Future of Autonomous Vehicles

Driverless technology carries potential that has yet to be fully realized. There have been promising developments, to be sure: General Motors just partnered with ride-sharing service Lyft to develop a fleet of autonomous vehicle. A similar partnership exists between Ford and Google, and BMW and Uber are working independently on their own technologies. It would seem that the future of driverless technology is just over the horizon.

The main obstacle between driverless technology and its implementation is lack of infrastructure. Local governments are not set up to handle cars without drivers. Who gets the ticket if a car is speeding? Should it be issued to the driver or to the car manufacturer? Right now, attempts at autonomous technology are led almost exclusively by the private sector. Ford and BMW have both promised to roll their first autonomous vehicles off the assembly line by 2021, but there are still many unexplored details. Without collaboration from the public sector, mass adoption of driverless technology will remain in the backseat.

Pros and Cons of Driverless Technology

It’s not difficult to see the appeal of autonomous vehicles–car companies have been extolling them since autonomous vehicles were just compelling buzzwords. The first, and most persuasive, advantage of driverless cars is that they eliminate human error. We could avoid car accidents injuries, reducing the tax burdens from hospital care and insurance by millions of dollars each year. This argument seems particularly gripping when considering the trucking industry. Truck drivers are overworked, and fatigue is one of the leading causes of accidents. We could significantly impact the amount of money we spend on healthcare and other costs associated with car accidents by eliminating human errors on the road.

This leads to what may be driverless technology’s biggest obstacle: Who is liable in case of an accident? If the accident is between two autonomous cars, do the companies responsible for the technology pay the insurance claim? How will people insure their vehicles? Can you be legally responsible for something you didn’t do?

These questions are the center of a hot debate between lawyers and insurance companies. In a recent legal analysis, Bryant Walker Smith–a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law–attempted to address these points via a 77-page document that will likely guide state court decisions in the years to come. The paper makes the following projections:

  • Current driver liability law will shift to product liability, which would put primary liability in the hands of automakers, not drivers.
  • If manufacturers imply their automated systems are at least as safe as human drivers, they may be subject to misrepresentation suits.
  • Personal injury claims will center on the idea that the automated system’s performance was unreliable.
  • Future litigation will consider whether the automated system performed better than a human would have in the same or similar circumstances.
  • Would a reasonable change to the technology have prevented the crash?
  • Automated systems will likely be held to a higher care standard than human drivers.
  • Data stored in an autonomous vehicle’s computer systems will replace the police officer’s post-crash investigation and may be admissible in court.

Autonomous vehicles may have the potential to save lives, but there is still so much we don’t know about them. Liability and mass adoption will continue to be the subject of debate in the years to come.

Have you been injured recently in a crash involving a car or truck (driverless or not)? Our experienced Louisiana auto accident attorneys can help you obtain compensation for medical bills, time off work and other damages.

Seth Smiley
Seth is an attorney licensed to practice in Louisiana and California. He is the owner and lead attorney at Smiley Law Firm. To speak with Seth fill out the form on this page.
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