Protection for Personal Injury By A Driverless Vehicle

According to an article published in The Wall Street Journal on January 28, 2013, automakers and technology companies, including Google Inc., have been testing driverless car technology for years now, claiming that it can lead to safer, faster and less polluted roads. Over half a dozen states have weighed bills on the driverless road, with only California, Nevada, and Florida actually passing laws on the subject. Those measures haven’t gotten far, as driverless cars bring up an important question that has yet to be answered: Who is to blame if a driverless car crashes?

The answer to this is a complicated one. If the car gets into a wreck and there is no driver, is it the company who designed the technology that should be held responsible? The automaker? The owner?

This question is raising a lot of concern with any and all parties who may be determined liable in the event of a crash. The concern automakers are having is that if somebody comes along and modifies their driverless vehicle, that individual should be held responsible if the technology ultimately doesn’t work. A law passed in California last year directed the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to come up with rules by 2015. Florida’s legislature last year gave it’s motor-vehicle agency until 2014 to come up with a report on the cars. In 2011, Nevada became the first state to pass legislation on the topic, and their Department of Motor Vehicles developed 22 pages of rules governing driverless vehicles, licensing Google, Audi and autoparts maker Continental AG to test drive them on public roads.

According to Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the automakers’ alliance, there are huge benefits to this technology, but she said it is preferable for liability laws to come at the federal level to avoid a patchwork of different state laws. She says,

The liability costs for this could be huge.

With predictions such as the one made by Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn of Nissan Motor Co., claiming that driverless cars will be in showrooms by 2020, “autonomous vehicles 1.0” is a reality on the horizon that could bring about big changes to personal injury law involving motor vehicle accidents. For now, it is clear that tort law as it applies to remote controlled vehicles remains in place exactly as if the vehicle were operated by a live person. Injury claims would be dealt with in the same fashion as they are now even if the vehicle’s technology fails. Nevertheless, before driverless cars can be available to the public, it seems likely that a public policy debate will take place setting forth perhaps more stringent laws against the manufacturers of these vehicles in order to protect the public.