Driverless Cars: Liability or Breakthrough?

October 18, 2016

The emergence of driverless cars is an exciting prospect, but some are concerned that the growing popularity will lead to “a shift in the focus of liability insurance from personal fault to product safety.” Since automobile accidents constitute the largest category of tort claims, the focus will be on these new, driverless cars. Professor Michael Rustad, who is the co-director of the Intellectual Property Law Concentration at Suffolk University Law School, thinks that law suits will change from driver accident claims to claims against “car and component part manufacturers, including the software vendors.”
The liability issues with driverless cars are concerning. A driverless car in California operated under Nissan’s “Cruise Automation” system ran into a parked car after the car’s passenger tried to take control from the system. Since driverless cars are a new concept, there are relatively few laws on the books. Most states don’t explicitly reference driverless cars, either “because early bills have died in state legislatures or lawmakers are taking a wait-and-see approach.” One article suggests that the issue of liability should be left to the tort system; liability has long been handled through strict liability, negligence, and warranty; basically, what has always governed automobile accidents. However, the lack of guidance on this issue may mean that the liability falls on the manufacturers of driverless cars – and this may lead to a large incentive to sue frivolously, overworking the legal system and driving up legal costs. While driverless cars are projected to be safer than cars driven by people, there is still a huge potential for accidents, and the liability for these accidents could go in a variety of directions. It is also important to note that because of the novelty of self driving cars,

all that is needed to operate a driverless car is the “right technology”; no one needs a special permit or license, and there is no such thing at this time as a self driving car safety clearance.

In addition to liability issues with self driving cars, there is also fear of hacking. A traffic safety manager at AAA, Steve Phillips, says that criminals can jam signals between key fobs and the car in question; with the increasing computerization of cars, there is a risk of criminals being able to unlock and start targeted automobiles.
North Carolina is not immune to the driverless car fanfare; N.C. Vision Zero wants to bring driverless cars to the roads in order to cut down the 1,317 North Carolina traffic accident deaths down to zero. It is alleged that over ninety percent of car accidents are because of human error. North Carolina’s plan is to end all deaths from traffic accidents within thirty years. According to North Carolina Transportation Secretary Nick Tennyson, ending all deaths is “an ambitious goal, but it is not beyond our reach.” While the goal is admirable, the lack of law surrounding self driving cars and the uncertainty of liability is concerning.