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Driverless Cars Open Legal Can of Worms

Driverless Cars Open Legal Can of Worms

Driverless cars are among the most exciting automotive technology to emerge in the recent past. Cars with automated driving software are being developed and tested by a number of manufacturers, including Uber, Google, Audi, Tesla, and Mercedes-Benz. These innovations are raising questions in several areas: technical, ethical, and particularly, legal.

Self-driving vehicles are challenging traditional notions of liability and fault. These can be challenging issues even in cars driven by people. They are even more complicated with autonomous vehicles. Say a driverless car rear-ends the car in front of it. Who is in the wrong? The passenger in the car for failing to avoid the crash? The manufacturer of the car for building a faulty product? These are the questions that stakeholders are scrambling to answer as driverless technology becomes more widely used.

The answer to the liability question, as it’s been addressed so far, depends on which car you’re talking about. In February 2016, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said that in the case of an accident involving a Google driverless car, the manufacturer may be at fault. The decision reflects Google’s vision of a fully autonomous vehicle, which has no steering wheel, no brakes, and no way for human passengers to take control of the car. Because of this totally human-independent design, Google, as the auto manufacturer, would bear the responsibility for a crash. According to this model, auto insurance of the future will look a lot more like product liability as we know it today.

This isn’t the only possible interpretation, though. Other car makers, like Tesla, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi are unveiling “autopilot” features that act more as a supplement to human drivers than as a replacement. Cars like these still have a steering wheel and brakes, and they allow for human passengers to take control of the vehicle at any time. In cases like these, the human, not the car, remains legally responsible for any potential crashes. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has even stated that Tesla will impose additional constraints on autopilot after seeing how many people became alarmingly dependent on their car to do all the driving for them. In vehicles where automation is limited, legal experts surmise that liability issues won’t be much different than cases involving cruise control.

The two models leave plenty of gray area between “optional autopilot” and “fully autonomous.” For example, as driving becomes increasingly automated and less demanding on human drivers, it seems likely that the standards for earning a driver’s license will be reduced. Eventually, self-driving cars could hugely improve mobility for the blind, elderly, disabled, or anyone else who is not able to operate today’s cars. Many consider this one of the biggest benefits of the upcoming technology. But if we let self-driving cars change our standards for who is qualified to drive, are we still able to hold those drivers responsible when accidents occur?

Some public safety experts are worried that legal questions like this will delay the success of autonomous vehicles. If auto manufacturers find themselves mired in endless liability lawsuits, the progress of driverless technology may slow or even come to a halt. That’s bad news to proponents of driverless cars.

A study by NHTSA found that every day in the United States alone, ninety people are killed and 6,400 injured in vehicle accidents. A staggering 94 percent of those accidents are due to human error. Computerized drivers can’t get drunk, text or talk on the phone, spill coffee on their lap, turn around to manage their kids, or do any other of the innumerable tasks that pull human drivers’ attention away from the road. It seems likely—almost inevitable—that fully computerized cars could hugely reduce the rate of car crashes.

That’s what’s at stake with these as-yet-hypothetical issues surrounding liability: safer roads for all drivers as human error is increasingly taken out of the equation. For now, legal precedent regarding self-driving vehicles will continue to evolve organically as the technology improves. Until then, we’ll have to wait and see what the road ahead has in store for driverless cars.