Ready or not, the U.S. auto industry is in a race with Silicon Valley tech firms to develop the future of personal transportation: the self-driving car. Many manufacturers have been testing their version of the autonomous car and the groundwork is being laid to get these vehicles on the road as soon as possible.
Will owning a car become a thing of the past? Instead of owning a car that is costly and loses value with each passing day, there is a trend for young adults to “pay to drive.” Rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft, as well as car clubs like ZipCar, which lets people reserve cars for short periods by using an app, are already growing fast. It is just a matter of time before these auto sharing companies are stocked with autonomous vehicles, once these companies realize how much money can be made.
What does this mean for the human victims of car accidents involving autonomous cars? Presently, the most common motor vehicle accident case is grounded in negligence. In these cases, negligence is simply the assessment of the reasonableness of a driver’s conduct. However, in an accident case involving a driverless car, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to apply the traditional negligence standard. Why? Because driverless car technology is designed to replace the driver’s actions and judgment. Consequently, plaintiffs in accident cases involving autonomous vehicles will have no choice but to claim that the accident was caused by a software or hardware defect in the car’s technology rather than by driver error. The result? Instead of claims being brought against individual drivers for negligence, products liability claims against automobile manufacturers will become the norm.
The question of who will be held liable for driverless accidents may slow the development and widespread acceptance of the driverless vehicle. Some manufacturers have stated that they will accept responsibility for any accident that is caused by a defect in their autonomous driving technology. This may provide some comfort to consumers and thus encourage the purchase and use of driverless technology, but will not guarantee that the driver won’t be sued. Undoubtedly, “autonomous vehicles will complicate the already complicated entanglements between insurance providers, plaintiffs, drivers/owners named as defendants, and manufacturers.” John Villasenor, Brookings Institution, Products Liability and Driverless Cars: Issues and Guiding Principles for Legislation, at 15 (April 24, 2014). Until the time a completely autonomous vehicle becomes reality, auto accident litigation involving autonomous driving where the driver still plays a role will present “complex questions of liability shared by both the human driver and autonomous vehicle technology providers.” Id. at 15.
In addition, driverless cars will need to communicate wirelessly with technology providers as well as with other vehicles. There is a very real risk that these systems will be “hacked.” At least one lawsuit has been started against major automakers alleging that “hackable” vehicles are legally defective. This leaves little doubt that future lawsuits will include allegations that manufacturers should be held liable for accidents that result from hacking.
It is important to understand that auto accident and product liability lawsuits are commonly defended vigorously, especially by large manufacturers and corporations that can afford a strong defense team. It may be vital to have an experienced car accident attorney New York, NY trusts who understands how to successfully build a case for potential damages. The attorney you choose can matter greatly.
Thank to our friends and contributors from Okun, Oddo, and Babat P.C. for their insight into driverless cars.