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Who Is Responsible When a Driverless Car Crashes?

Toyota, Tesla, Google, and other automakers have promised that driverless cars will revolutionize the personal transportation industry within the next five to ten years. They cannot promise, however, that driverless cars will be immune from accidents.

The death of Joshua Brown, a technology consultant whose autonomous car failed to apply the brakes before colliding with a semitrailer truck, is tragic evidence of these cars’ limitations. In the aftermath of his death, lawmakers are left to answer: Who is responsible when a driverless vehicle accident occurs?

Products liability law, and decades of precedence set through various cases, may provide an answer.

Before discussing liability, however, it is important to recognize that, on the aggregate, driverless cars are significantly safer than traditional automobiles. 33,000 of the roughly 35,000 auto deaths in 2015 were attributed to human error. By eliminating humans from the equation, experts believe that upwards of 30,000 lives will be saved each year.

Driverless cars may bring other benefits as well, such as allowing cities to undertake ambitious infrastructure projects, rethinking public transportation and opening more space to pedestrians. Driverless cars can empower those who are unable to drive themselves, such as the visually impaired. Would-be drivers, freed to focus on tasks besides driving, may gain many hundreds of billions of dollars in lost productivity.

Yet, the question of responsibility for accidents remains. In a letter to Google, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) wrote that, “If no human occupant of the vehicle can actually drive the vehicle, it is more reasonable to identify the “driver” as whatever (as opposed to whoever) is doing the driving.” The NHTSA’s position in this letter suggests that victims of accidents will be able to sue automakers for damages.

This is good news for the consumer.

By laying the foundation for consumers to hold automakers accountable, the NHTSA is all but guaranteeing that autonomous cars will already be safe when they are released, and that they will become safer with time. If an automaker releases a fleet of defective cars, for example, product liability lawyers will hold the manufacturer accountable, obtaining financial compensation for the victims and unwanted publicity for the company. The threat of products liability lawsuits incentivizes automakers to make autonomous cars safe from the get-go, and to correct any defects that may arise in a timely fashion.

As straightforward as this logic may be, corporate lobbyists and other auto industry advocates are already working to let manufacturers off the hook. They argue that automakers will bear an unfair burden for accidents, and that lawsuits may “kill the autonomous car.” Some have even suggested that automakers should be exempt from lawsuits altogether.

What these advocates often fail to mention is that total liability will drastically decrease when compared to today’s automobiles due to the safety of autonomous cars.

The suggestion that automakers should be exempt from lawsuits fails to take into account the fact that consumers would have little confidence in companies that cannot be held liable for the damage caused by their vehicles.

As with any industry that outputs potentially deadly products, liability lawsuits are a necessary cost of business. They incentivize safe practices, and they protect accident victims who require financial resources to pay for medicals bills and lost wages, through no fault of their own.

Just as product liability law has never threatened to “kill” the auto industry, it poses no such threat the future of autonomous cars. Auto manufacturers must always be held answerable to liability law.


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Filippou, Romina “Self-Driving Cars: Legal Issues Ahead.” The National Law Review. 9 January 2016.

Fung, Brian “Google’s driverless cars are now legally the same as a human driver.” The Washington Post. 10 February 2016.

Greenblatt, Nathan “Self-Driving Cars Will Be Ready Before Our Laws Are.” IEEE Spectrum. 19 January 2016.

Gurney, Jeffrey “Sue My Car Not me: Products Liability and Accidents Involving Autonomous Vehicles.” University of Illinois Journal of Law, Technology & Policy. 2013.

Thierer, Adam “When the Trial Lawyers Come for the Robot Cars.” Slate. 10 June 2016.

Villasenor, John “Products Liability and Driverless Cars: issues and Guiding Principles for Legislation.” Brookings. 24 April 2014.

Vlasic, Bill and Boudette, Neal “Self-Driving Tesla Was Involved in Fatal Crash, U.S. Says.” The New York Times. 30 June 2016.

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