Liability in Driverless Car Accidents

Daniel Mensching, MJLST Staffer

Driverless cars made national headlines last week when a police officer in California pulled over a car for driving too slowly only to find that there was no driver to be ticketed. While this car was pulled over only for being too slow and no laws were actually broken, this incident is an example of the legal problems that will arise as driverless cars become a reality.

Driverless cars are currently being developed by several large automobile manufacturers, and Google is also producing a model which they plan on making available to the public in 2020. Advocates of driverless cars emphasize not only the convenience of not needing to drive, but also pointing out that they are much safer than human drivers. Robots will not experience road rage, they will not get drunk, and they will not text. That being said, accidents will inevitably occur and the legal system will need to determine liability and provide recourse to those who are injured.

Some commentators have noted that the problem of determining liability has the potential to kill automated vehicles despite the fact that these vehicles are safer than human drivers.

Some states have already passed statutes in anticipation of the rise of driverless cars, but these laws only make driverless cars legal for research purposes, and there are still many questions to be answered. The most likely legal policy that will emerge will be that manufacturers of driverless cars will be the sole target in lawsuits arising from accidents involving driverless cars. In fact, Volvo has already released a statement where the Swedish automobile manufacturer claimed that it would take full responsibility for any accident involving a driverless Volvo.

The legal system will most likely provide recourse to those injured in accidents by finding manufacturers liable in product liability cases. Plaintiffs can use several legal theories to win these cases, including design defect, manufacturing defect, or failure to warn. The legal system should avoid creating a strict liability standard for driverless car accidents, as this would have the effect of chilling research and development of this technology, which will have the overall effect of saving scores of lives and making society more efficient.