Liability for Self-Driving Cars

A self-driving car caused a pedestrian’s death in Tempe, Arizona on March 19th, 2018. According to media reports, the SUV being tested by Uber was fully autonomous, but had a human backup driver. The person killed was walking a bicycle across a street outside the lines of a crosswalk. Media reports do not explain why neither the vehicle nor the driver failed to stop before hitting the pedestrian.

Arizona reportedly lured Uber to conduct its testing in Arizona rather than California by promising “hands-off” regulation. The federal government has done nothing to regulate self-driving cars other than to consider passage of a law which will preempt (prohibit) states from passing their own driverless vehicle safety standards. In other words, there is a regulatory vacuum at the present. My sense of the situation is that the technology is so new and changing so rapidly that government regulators will have a hard time creating safety standards and it is likely the technology companies and auto manufacturers will ultimately write the regulations themselves.

Texas, like most other states, imposes liability for injury, death and property damage based upon a traditional legal and factual determination of whether the driver was negligent and, if so, whether that negligence was the proximate cause of the event and the plaintiff’s injuries and damages. Such a liability system will be unworkable for autonomous vehicles unless the law is changed to make the driver and the owner of the vehicle liable for the errors made by the autonomous system, or unless laws are passed that make the manufacturer of the vehicle strictly liable instead of the driver or owner if it is determined that the vehicle, regardless of who or what was driving it, was at fault. If this or something similar to this is not done, every liability claim will become a hellishly expensive product liability claim that will require the victim to prove how and why the driverless technology failed.

Traffic fatalities were 37,461 in 2016. Of those deaths, driver error was responsible for 94% of the incidents. Autonomous vehicles have the potential of creating greater public safety, but lawmakers need to get in the game before it’s too late.

For an excellent explanation of how self-driving vehicles work, see The New York Times of March, 20th, 2018.


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