With driverless cars set to take the roads in the not-so-distant future, questions of “how” are starting to be overshadowed by “who.” Specifically, who will be held liable if a driverless vehicle is involved in an accident? The owner? The designer? The manufacturer? The passenger in the vehicle?
The answer has proven to be as nearly complex as the technology itself. In more than half a dozen states, bills have been introduced to govern driverless vehicle liability. Among them, only California, Nevada, and Florida have passed any noteworthy legislation, and even those bills have been extremely limited in scope. California and Florida have only set deadlines for future action, while Nevada has only passed laws addressing driverless vehicle testing, not liability. In several other states, the issue of liability has caused proposed legislation to stall in committee.
While automakers tout the potential safety benefits of driverless cars, many have lobbied to have liability laws imposed at the federal level. Such a move would avoid potential incongruencies among the states and make the liability landscape far clearer for owners and manufacturers, alike. To date, however, the Nation Highway Safety Administration has not issued any rules.
As the uncertain future of driverless vehicles draws closer, one thing has become increasingly apparent: clear and comprehensive laws governing liability are a must. Should state and local governments fall short, the headaches we can expect are sure to outweigh any stress we might avoid by napping through the morning commute.