Putting the Reins on Autonomous Vehicle Liability: Why Horse Accidents Are the Best Common Law Analogy

January 23, 2018
Autonomous vehicles raise new liability questions on the road because the vehicles themselves can act negligently, independent of the human driver’s intentions. For now, these liability questions are expected to be answered through the incremental common law system, rather than by legislation. This means courts will draw analogies and distinctions between autonomous vehicle accidents and pre-existing case law precedent. What courts analogize autonomous vehicle accidents with is likely to have a significant effect on liability rules that determine the responsibilities of drivers, manufacturers, and others.
Numerous theories have been proffered on what courts can or should analogize autonomous vehicles with for liability purposes. These include analogies with elevators, autopilot systems, and human beings. Each of these analogy theories have some merit. However, comparing autonomous vehicles to transportation by horse is a superior, yet overlooked, analogy to autonomous vehicles for liability purposes. Horses and autonomous vehicles can both perceive and interpret the world around them, then engage in dangerous maneuvers as a result of misunderstanding their environment. This Recent Development explores the horse analogy theory through the lens of different legal doctrines, such as instrumentality of harm, assumption of the risk, and product liability.