Driverless cars or self-driving vehicles at first seemed to be a novelty or something from a futuristic movie. Now several auto manufacturers are committing to having the cars on the road in the near future. The advantages for those who have trouble parking, for the elderly and the disabled are obvious, but a recent deadly crash in Florida involving braking and perhaps some sensory software issues of an autonomous Tesla Model S have forced car manufacturers to take a closer look at the technology before mass producing these cars for public consumption.
When a “driver” or passenger is in a robot car, with that comes the notion that they are safe. The car can handle any situation perhaps even better than a human being because of all of its sophisticated technology. Millions of dollars are being poured into this technology, with Google among those leading the charge and even stating that there may not even be a need for a steering wheel. But what happens when something does go wrong?
If one of your family members is injured or killed in such a vehicle, or a pedestrian is struck by a robot car, you would want answers and you would want justice.
It seems only natural that the manufacturer of the product who held out that vehicle to be safe and likely charged a premium for the special features of the car would be the first party that one would think to be responsible for any tragedy that occurs. But the component parts of the car, similar to an airplane, may be made by a number of companies as well as the software that will be interacting with the hardware of the car. There may be several problems that need to be sorted out if the car fails to operate properly and safely or if its ability to communicate with other vehicles around it goes awry. What about hackers in the wireless software system that runs the vehicle? If a company is profiting from the public for a product, then product liability law that has been developed over the years requires that the company must also bear the responsibility when something goes wrong. Volvo, that predicts it will have its driverless cars commercially available by 2020, already has gone on record to say that it will take full responsibility for any crashes or problems. Google executives also have come out publicly and said that it could be held accountable for crashes when its cars are at fault.
The National Conference of State Legislatures has tracked legislation on driverless cars and reveals that five states, including Florida and the District of Columbia, allow driverless cars, but some states have included certain conditions be followed. The Governor of Arizona issued an executive order that called for state agencies to “undertake any necessary steps to support the testing and operation” of self-driving vehicles.
More and more states are introducing legislation to allow these types of vehicles. Rep. Jack D. Franks (D-Woodstock) is among the sponsors of H.B. 3136 in the General Assembly to sponsor a bill dealing with autonomous cars that included insurance issues. It passed unanimously in the House and is now awaiting approval in the state Senate. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reportedly is crafting guidelines for the safe use of automated cars. The agency announced in January, 2016, that Google’s software, not human passengers is considered the “driver” in self-driving cars, but it is likely that liability will be determined on a state-by-state basis given that states now control drivers’ licensing and insurers use to evaluate driver liability risks.
A driverless car can be likened to being a passenger in an airplane– passengers in an aircraft have no control over what is going on in the cockpit and cannot be held liable. Self-driving cars operate on an analogous principle with drivers taking a back seat, particularly when it comes to liability. Courts certainly will be able to handle liability questions brought before them regarding self-driving cars, just as courts have dealt with all other new technological advances– from drones to the internet’s privacy issues. Product liability law, in particular, is an evolving area allowing plaintiffs to recover for negligence, strict liability, design defects, manufacturing defects, breach of warranty for explicit and implicit warranties, and possibly even punitive damages. The law is highly adaptive to new technologies and will be able to adapt to the emerging technologies of the robot car. Already consumers are getting a taste of the technology through crash-imminent braking, lane-changing warnings, and autonomous parallel parking. But as Google and others work on highly sophisticated driverless cars that operate on sensor information as well as mapping data, cameras, radars, redundant backup systems, steering actuators and full vehicle diagnostics, software bugs and network failures will begin to enter the product liability picture as well. A 2014 Brookings Institution study found that current product liability law already covers many of the issues involved in accidents involving robotic cars. The Rand Corporation released a study in 2016 that found that manufacturer liability will likely increase and personal liability will likely decrease with the use of the autonomous car, “Autonomous Vehicle Technology: A Guide for Policymakers”.
If you or a loved one has been involved in an incident involving a self-driving or driverless car, please contact Clifford Law Offices. We have vast experience in product liability law as well as vehicular accidents representation.