Driverless Cars and the Future of Liability
Posted in Lawsuit on September 26, 2017
Driverless technology is making great strides. In fact, our roads could be filled with autonomous vehicles in the not-so-distant future. Proponents of the technology say that these cars could save lives by eliminating human error. On the other hand, many legal advocates explain they – and other experts – haven’t fully explored the technology – at least when it comes to liability. Driverless vehicles pose an interesting but disturbing question; what happens in the event of an accident? Will insurance companies refuse to pay claims involving driverless vehicles?
Autonomous Vehicles and the Insurance Industry
Experts predict that autonomous technology could shrink the insurance industry to 40% of its current size in the next 25 years, largely due to the increased safety of autonomous cars. To understand how liability might play out in an autonomous situation, it’s helpful to understand the five levels of autonomous technology:
- Level 0 has no autonomous features.
- Level 1 can only handle one automatic task at a time, for example braking.
- Level 2 vehicles have 2 autonomous features.
- Level 3 vehicles have autonomous “dynamic driving tasks” but require intervention.
- Level 4 vehicles are completely driverless in certain environments.
- Level 5 vehicles can operate on their own without any driver present.
For level four and 5 vehicles, liability is more clear cut. In the event of an accident, manufacturers of these vehicles are more likely to be held responsible. Anything below 5, however, is legally open to interpretation.
Options for Driverless Car Liability
When determining the nature of liability for autonomous vehicles, there are a few possible options:
- Let nature take its course. When the original automobile reached mainstream adoption, the courts developed a variety of legal mechanisms to help compensate victims of auto accidents. These include negligence, strict liability, breach of warranty, failure to warn, design effect laws, and so on.
Many of these laws could prove applicable to autonomous vehicles, and these liability norms may evolve freely as manufacturers introduce these vehicles on the roadways. For example, the courts may order a manufacturer to pay for damages if their company puts a fleet of defective cars on the road (in accordance with current product liability law). Much of our current insurance system would shift from drivers to the makers of these vehicles.
- An alternative tort system. In some sense, the previous model could undermine the development of this lifesaving technology, if automakers fear reprisal. As a model for litigation, we could look to the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Program, which helped pharmaceutical companies develop life-saving vaccines by protecting them from liability.
This no-fault system requires families with injured children to follow certain procedures to collect compensation from a fund. A system similar to this for autonomous vehicles would encourage automakers to further develop this technology without fear of lawsuits.
When it comes to driverless technology, there are still many legal implications the courts have not fully explored. However, such issues are worth considering before autonomous vehicles hit the mainstream. We should do whatever we can to facilitate the development and adoption of this technology while affording protection from risk and potential negligence.