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Driverless Cars? Ah, But Who Do You Sue?

A recent news article discussed the development of the "Google Car." A Toyota Prius has been equipped with software that "drives" it. The car has logged 140,000 miles and the only accident appears to have been when it was rear-ended by another driver. The question raised by the article was, if there was an accident where the "Google car" was the cause, who would you sue?

Google Cars-A Good Idea?

The story provides a laundry list of the benefits of having driverless cars, such as, "tuning the engine to coast as efficiently possible, increasing the capacity of existing roads and the unassailable fact that machines don't get tired, they don't get drunk and they don't get distracted."

The concern, of course, is what happens when something does goes wrong. And, something will go wrong, as with any machine made by humans. This means lawyers and lawsuits.

The problem for The Law, at this point, is this is all new. The statutes and case law that control the determination of liability in motor vehicle accidents were written for cars with human drivers. While there would be some period of uncertainty, changes in the law would need to be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.

The software would have an author. In the current discussion, it is Google. The car has a manufacturer, in this case, Toyota. And, there would the owner of the vehicle. Depending on the incident, one, or all, of those parties would bear some responsibility. In the Google Car, as a fail-safe, a human technician sits behind the wheel, ready to intervene, if a situation develops that is beyond the ability of the software to cope. Of course, cars have accidents all the time with human drivers.

In a production model, if the car were purchased by an individual, the primary uses could be highway and interstate driving, where the benefits of eliminating driver distraction and fatigue would be easily realized.

Should something go wrong, the legal process would examine who was at fault. Was it a software issue, where the program made the wrong decision and caused a crash? Alternatively, was it the failure of the mechanical aspect of vehicle, where the software "worked" but a part was defective or malfunctioned?

A Difference of Degree?

These types of issues may be new, but they really are not greatly different from any other type of defect that can be present in a consumer product. At trial, with experts on both sides, the court should be able to discover where the problem occurred, and assign liability.

A comment on the story suggests that taxis would be a significant market for driverless cars, as companies would save the salary of the driver, and with GPS technology, they could take passengers anywhere.

A problem is still going to remain how to assure the average person that traveling in them is safe. Of course, that opens the larger debate about the safety of traveling by automobile. How safe are cars? The NHTSA reports 37,261 fatalities for 2008 represented the lowest level of traffic fatalities since 1961.

While that is good news (in part, due to the recession), imagine if 37,000 Americans every year were dying at the hand of terrorists. Travel by motor vehicle is certainly fraught with peril, but because we do it every day, we discount that danger. Many drivers are unsafe and should not be driving, but because of the absence of adequate public transportation and how cities were built (low density and sprawl), most people have little choice.

It may be that driverless cars will be successful in the market and eventually make the roads even safer. But, as the recent developments with the Toyota sudden acceleration issue shows, complex technology sometimes brings with it additional, unforeseen, problems.

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