Autonomous Vehicles and Self-Driving Cars: Evolving Legal Issues

Self-driving cars seemed like science fiction just a few years ago. As autonomous vehicles and self-driving cars become increasingly common in the United States, risks attendant to their use will become more prominent, and better understood. It is possible that by 2021 or 2022 hundreds of thousands of autonomous vehicles will be on American roads.

PC Magazine defines an autonomous vehicle as a “car or truck that is self-driving”.

Autonomous vehicles are expected to take over some or all of the nation’s road transportation in the future. For example, Uber, Tesla, and Waymo, Google’s self-driving car effort, have garnered splashy headlines and millions of dollars in development. Each of these companies expects to revolutionize the way people and goods get from place to place. While technology and progress haven’t always kept pace with the hype, it is clear that self-driving vehicles will appear in record numbers each year, and eventually become ubiquitous.

Existing Laws Governing Autonomous Vehicles

Self-driving and autonomous vehicles present new challenges for legislators, challenges which will not be fully clear until the new vehicles are in widespread use. With only five years of American experience with autonomous vehicles, the rules and regulations regarding autonomous vehicles are still evolving. Self-driving cars were not permitted on roads in the United States until 2013.

Since then, Washington D.C. and twenty-nine states have passed laws governing the use of autonomous vehicles. In September 2018, Congress promulgated basic federal guidelines setting out the classification of vehicles, ranging from non-autonomous (driven by humans) to fully autonomous (“self”- driven). While federal guidelines now define what qualifies as an autonomous vehicle, other legal definitions differ from state to state, and additional issues attendant to their use still need to be addressed.

For example, one of the most integral and disputed definitions concerns the definition of a “vehicle operator”. Previously, the resolution of traffic accidents and insurance applications depended on common variables such as driver performance, history, and habits. In contrast, self-driving vehicles do not have a traditional driver making decisions and propelling the car. Consequently, many experts expect the focus on driver history in accident lawsuits to shift to a focus on the autonomous guidance system. Rather than reckless driving, which involves human thought, care, and awareness of road conditions at the moment of the accident, technological flaws, such as a bad line of code, will likely cause many future crashes.

Thus, the question of who will be liable for autonomous-vehicle accidents remains unsettled.

Possibilities For Liability In Self-Driving Cars

Multiple high-profile self-driving car accidents have already occurred but the parties have settled the resulting lawsuits confidentially. As a result, no legal precedent yet exists about who is responsible when an autonomous vehicle malfunctions or crashes.

Liability could fall on any one of, or a combination of, three main actors in potential autonomous, or partially-autonomous, vehicle accidents:

  1. The ride-hailing service or operator of the vehicle at the time of the accident
  2. The technology suppliers for the vehicle
  3. The vehicle manufacturer

Many factors can play a role in a given lawsuit, including whether any companies in the chain of supply have signed indemnification clauses. Given the uncertainty in the law and the newness of the technology, the one thing that is certain is that this will be an interesting and evolving area of the law for some time.

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To Learn More About Autonomous Vehicle Regulations:

For more information about self-driving cars and autonomous vehicles, visit https://www.wired.com/story/guide-self-driving-cars/

For up-to-date information about state legislation dealing with self-driving cars and autonomous vehicles, visit http://www.ncsl.org/research/transportation/autonomous-vehicles-self-driving-vehicles-enacted-legislation.aspx

For an in-depth review of the different stages of vehicle automation, from no automation, to fully automated, visit https://www.nhtsa.gov/technology-innovation/automated-vehicles-safety

For a good analysis of different state laws and varying definitions, visit https://www.brookings.edu/blog/techtank/2018/05/01/the-state-of-self-driving-car-laws-across-the-u-s/