Cars that drive themselves? That sounds impossible to many people, but Tesla is selling a car that can do it. Whether it can do so safely is another issue entirely. The term for a self-driving car is an “autonomous vehicle.” These cars rely on technology that senses their performance and surroundings and adjusts accordingly.
Many modern cars have some degree of autonomous capability. Electronic stability control, anti-lock brakes, and collision warning systems are all examples of systems that allow a car to exert control beyond the driver’s actions. The completely autonomous car will control all of its functions without any driver input.
A Rand Corporation report states that fewer accidents will occur with the use of autonomous vehicles. The majority of accidents are attributable to driver error, so it follows that those errors will be eliminated as autonomous cars become better able to function safely.
However, autonomous technology is not yet ready for every eventuality. A driver was killed in a wreck when his Tesla equipped with auto-pilot technology failed to detect a tractor-trailer turning in front of the vehicle. The auto-pilot never applied the brakes.
From a liability standpoint, the shift in control of the car from driver to electronic systems will also mean a shift in legal liability when personal injuries occur. In our current legal system, most accidents are the result of driver error. Therefore, the drivers (and their insurance companies) are liable to others. But when cars operate autonomously through the use of electronic technology products, the manufacturers of those products will face liability when crashes occur.
Already, automatic systems like electronic stability control can malfunction and cause a car to lose control. As we move toward increased vehicle autonomy, lawsuits will become more complicated. Driver, vehicle, and software error could all play a part in a crash. Attorneys will need to gather and evaluate all evidence that sheds light on who—or what—was at fault.
When fully autonomous cars are on the scene, however, injury lawsuits will likely be matters of product liability. This will fundamentally change the face of car collision lawsuits. Auto insurance companies will no longer be on the hook for driver error, as the manufacturers assume increasing liability for their products.
Right now, everyone is caught up in the excitement and novelty of self-driving cars. Once the realization of potential product liability claims sets in, the rush to implementation may slow.
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