Self-Driving Cars and Liability Implications
Current technological advancements have moved into the territory of perfecting automated functions. It started small with innovations like motion sensors to turn on/off lights in a room and activate the flush of the toilet, and has progressively grown in sophistication. The newest introduction in the automobile manufacturing industry is the self-driving car. Volvo, Google, Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz, and Tesla are just a few of the contenders in this new arena.1
Even Uber, the ride-share service, working with Volvo and Ford, has entered the fray.2 Citing the propensity for human error when handling automobiles as the major cause of traffic accidents, Uber seeks to ameliorate the tragic state of affairs by eliminating the human component and moving into self-driving vehicle territory.3 Self-driving Ubers have hit the streets in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Boston is keen on testing out self-driving cars on the city’s streets next.4
While this advent of the self-driving car may have several beneficial consequences – arguably safer driving conditions, potentially cheaper ride-share and transportation costs, and perhaps more environmentally conscientious emissions, 5 the liability implications that arise from the incorporation of these new fleets of robot automobiles spells trouble.
Tesla has, perhaps in anticipation of these liability concerns, built into the Autopilot feature of its cars the necessity of a driver. The Tesla vehicle will navigate and steer on its own, but requires some degree of contact on the wheel – a finger, knees, whatever the driver chooses – in order for the vehicle to continue moving. After a few seconds of no contact, the vehicle will prompt the driver to make contact in some way with the wheel. If the driver is non-responsive to this prompt, the vehicle will slow and halt to a stop.6 In fact, when engaging the Autopilot feature, the driver must acknowledge that he must “maintain control and responsibility for [the] vehicle” and “[b]e prepared to take over at any time.”7
On May 7, 2016 in Willison, Florida, a driver of a Model S Tesla in Autopilot mode was involved in a fatal traffic accident. Both the driver and the Autopilot Tesla failed to brake in time when a tractor-trailer made a sharp left turn ahead of the vehicle.8 The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration notified Tesla that it was investigating their Autopilot-featuring vehicles.9 Self-driving cars are a new development in the automobile industry and, as such, laws governing the assessment of liability have yet to be created, and likely will not be for a while yet. Given the complexity of the technology, there are many parties likely to be involved in liability assessment, beyond simply the drivers of vehicles and the manufacturer of the vehicle. When a car drives itself, who or what is to blame when an accident occurs? The owner of the vehicle, the driver of the other vehicle, the manufacturer of the vehicle, or the programmer of the autopilot function of the vehicle? 10
It will be interesting to see how the jurisprudence evolves when addressing liability in vehicular traffic accidents involving self-driving cars, and if/how this will affect the development of this promising aspect of the automobile industry, which has the potential to minimize, if not eliminate, traffic incidents altogether.