Categorized | Opinion

ROBOT CARS: Who is Liable?

By David Peel

David PeelAutonomous cars, sometimes called robot cars or driverless cars are here. They are not just coming–they already exist on roads in some places. They will soon have vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications systems that will allow cars to “talk” to each other so that they know where other vehicles are.  The Department of Transportation estimates that safety systems using V2V communications will be able to prevent 76% of crashes. The Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) already show a reduction in claims for current cars equipped with things like forward-collision warning systems with automatic braking. They certainly don’t drink and drive or get road rage.
Robot cars will be convenient as well. Just imagine summoning it by a smartphone, in effect serving as a fully automated Uber or Taxi service. They are already proving safer per mile than those driven by people. But, as usual, the technology is way ahead of the law.
If you buy, for example, a Google self-driving car and it causes an accident, should you or Google be on the hook for the injuries? Was it a failure of the software and sensors they used or your maintenance? Is it a personal injury or product liability lawsuit?
Here are four of the competing ideas on how this should be handled:
1. “Auto insurance handling it much the way they do now.” Currently, if your tire fails and you cause an accident, your personal auto insurance covers that, even though it was not a negligent act you expressly did. The law might just clearly state that the car’s acts be imputed to (and be deemed the conduct of) its primary operator. Risk is insurance’s business. It costs more to insure a sports car than a sedan as a result. In the future, State Farm and Allstate will know that, for example, Robot X Car Series 7 is much safer and thus less risky than say a 5 Series. This would pass costs along in a more traditional way.
2. “Manufacturer is always liable if in automatic mode.”  This idea is logical in that the owner of the car was not driving or controlling anything and the software caused the wreck. It’s called strict liability. But if a company sold thousands of cars, think of the liability of being legally responsible for every ticket or accident those vehicles get in. Maybe a large risk pool or Fund would be established.
3. “Personhood.” We already do this for corporations and LLCs. They are non-human persons in the law. You have never seen McDonald’s, only a sign on a building owned by a fictionalized company on a piece of paper. But that corporation can sue and be sued, own property and hire workers. Thus, if Driverless Car #423 is a “person” under the law, then it can carry insurance and be, in all relevant ways, like a corporation is: a separate insurable being.
4. “No-Fault Insurance. The no-fault auto insurance idea is the law in some states as an alternative to fault-based laws as the use of automated vehicles. You would self-insure for the acts of others.
In the end, each state might handle it differently. But 50 years from now there will be no steering wheel in a new car.
Peel seeks justice for those injured in car accidents, work place incidents, medical malpractice, and nursing homes. He often addresses churches, clubs and groups without charge. Peel may be reached through wherein other articles may be accessed.
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June 2015
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