Self-Driven Cars Nearly Ready: The Challenge of Ensuring the Law Keeps Pace with Technology


October 17, 2013

Although the notion of self-driven vehicles may feel like a novel science fiction concept to some, the question is not whether cars that can operate without the direct involvement of a driver will fill our highways but how soon.  According to a report in the New York Times, developers at Google believe they can have self-driven vehicles ready to be sold in approximately five years.  Further, industry experts have predicted that cars which drive on their own will dominate the highways by 2025 according to the Wall Street Journal.  State legislators are increasingly recognizing this reality by passing laws that facilitate testing of futuristic cars that navigate the roadways without human participation.  However, these self-piloted vehicles raise potentially thorny legal and safety issues.

In many ways, the challenges of developing a regulatory safety scheme and liability rules for self-driven vehicles is unique because of the way individual states and the federal government have traditionally shared responsibility for making the roadways safe.  The legislation that has been passed so far by individual states has focused on requirements for testing vehicles rather than how owners will be expected to operate the vehicles.  Generally, the federal government has established safety standards and regulations for vehicles while individual states have been responsible for laws governing drivers.  It is unclear whether the federal government or individual states will assume primary responsibility for regulating the operation of cars that drive via auto-pilot.  We have focused on a number of key issues that we believe will be important as this technology is implemented.

Will drivers be held legally and financially responsible for speeding violations and speed-related accidents?

The key is whether these vehicle will be designed to let the occupant determine the speed.  The vehicles currently being tested do permit the person who is essentially functioning as “the driver” to set the speed of the vehicle.  If the vehicles that are actually placed on the market continue this design, then drivers who violate the speed limit and cause accidents because they are driving at an unsafe speed may be held financially responsible for the accidents.

However, the manufacturers of the vehicles may be able to design the vehicles so that they cannot speed which would generally mean this is a non-issue unless the vehicle malfunctions.  The most compelling benefit of self-driven cars is the increased safety that comes from eliminating unsafe driving behavior like speeding, distracted driving and DUI so rendering the vehicles incapable of speeding could yield significant safety benefits.  At the very least, vehicle computer systems in these vehicles could be equipped with software that reveals when a driver overrides the maximum speed or sets the speed above the posted speed limit which might actually assist car accident victims in proving liability.

Who will be legally responsible when collisions occur?

While the majority of accidents in existing cars are caused by driver error with fewer crashes caused by vehicle malfunction, the issue of assigning fault gets more complicated when a car drives itself.  The process of assigning liability may become murky when the roadways are filled with self-driven vehicles.  Drivers can be expected to deny liability on the grounds that they were not driving – the car was driving.  Generally, liability is imposed on a driver for a traffic violation or accident when the driver acts in a careless or reckless manner that causes injury to others. 

Unless the collision involving a self-driven car is the result of the owner’s failure to perform required maintenance, it may be difficult to establish that the unsafe conduct of a driver caused a car to blow through a red light when the person in the driver’s seat is essentially a passenger rather than a driver.  While the manufacturers of these vehicles and their components may be liable for a malfunction under product liability law, states may require drivers to be ready to intervene, and they may hold drivers accountable for failing to slow, stop or steer to avoid a collision.  If the majority of liability for car accidents shifts to the manufacturers of self-driven vehicles and the computer systems that operate these cars, manufacturers presumably will simply incorporate the costs of litigation and damages for accidents into the cost of the vehicles.

Will drivers with disabilities that prevent them from obtaining a driver’s license be permitted to operate self-driven vehicles?

Some drivers with medical conditions like epilepsy or others with physical or developmental disabilities are not permitted to obtain a driver’s license in certain states.  While a self-driven car might provide the promise of more autonomy and mobility to these individuals, it is unclear how liability would be assessed if they failed to intervene to prevent a collision when the car malfunctions.

How will multi-tasking behind the wheel be treated when car accidents occur in self-driven vehicles?

Distracted driving is one of the most prevalent causes of serious motor vehicle accidents.  A key selling point of vehicles that operate on auto-pilot is that they relieve drivers of some of the responsibility for performing driving tasks so that drivers can engage in other activities.  Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has recommended that states require someone to be in a position to take control of a vehicle in the case of a malfunction, Nevada has already passed a law permitting drivers to text when riding in a self-driven vehicle.  Motorists impaired by drugs or alcohol could utilize a self-driven vehicle as a “designated driver,” but the vehicles might be far less attractive to consumers if they are expected to exhibit the same amount of vigilance as when they operate a traditional vehicle and/or face prohibitions on driving (riding) while impaired by drugs or alcohol.

What sort of driver education or training will be required to operate a self-driven car?

Although the NHTSA has recommended that states adopt requirements that involve special licenses or a special endorsement to operate these vehicles, this would be a significant departure from current driver qualifications because drivers that purchase a new car, truck or SUV are not required to obtain an enhanced driver’s license.  The issue may turn on the complexity and intuitiveness of driving one of these vehicles.

One government publication suggests that the most likely drawback to the widespread use of self-driven cars involves these complex issues of liability and fault.  Currently, vehicle developers are much closer to solving the technological challenges that will make the futuristic vision of auto-piloted cars a reality than lawmakers are to determining how to address traffic violations and liability when car accidents occur.  While the vision for these vehicles is that they will make the roads safer and reduce the number of collisions resulting in personal injury, it is too early to tell whether these vehicles will make things easier for those who are injured when collisions do inevitably occur.

Will event data recorders be used to provide evidence like with plane crashes and tractor-trailers?

These vehicles will be primarily controlled by a computer system so mandatory use of black boxes (i.e. data recorders) could make it much easier to determine what went wrong when accidents occur.  Cars driven by onboard computers may indeed prove to be safer.  However, the issue of fault when the vehicles malfunction becomes a matter of critical importance for those who suffer devastating injuries when the technology falls short of its goals.  Government regulators could use such a requirement to ease the burden of distinguishing whether the computer auto-pilot system or the person in the driver’s seat caused the crash.

While sometime in the future vehicle manufacturers may be the most common culprits behind crashes, inconsiderate, aggressive and careless drivers continue to cause most accidents for now.  If you or someone close to you is injured in an Atlanta auto collision, our Georgia car accident attorneys at Montlick and Associates are available to provide effective legal representation to those throughout all of Georgia and the Southeast, including all smaller cities and rural areas in the state.  No matter where you are located our attorneys are just a phone call away, and we will even come to you. Call us 24 hours a day/7 days a week for your Free Consultation at 1-800-LAW-NEED (1-800-529-6333).  You can also visit us online at www.montlick.com and use our Free Case Evaluation Form or 24-hour Live Online Chat.

Category: Auto Accidents

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Many of our blog articles discuss the law. All information provided about the law is very general in nature and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Every situation is different, and should be analyzed by a lawyer who can provide individualized advice based on the facts involved in your unique situation, and a consideration of all of the nuances of the statutes and case law that apply at the time.