I just learned this fact recently. I had no idea that technology was getting to the point where we actually have prototypes driving around California. Google Inc. has been testing these cars on California roads for at least six years. In that time, there have only been 11 accidents. Google claims that none of the accidents were their fault, but that can’t be verified independently.
The car can see more than a football field away and has lines and lines of code telling it how to react to every situation the designers could think of. To perform the tests, California requires there to be a human driver behind the wheel. But you can recognize them due to the rig on top that allows them to “see” the road all around them. California also requires testers to have an insurance policy with a $5 million liability limit.
This could be the start of a whole new specialty of personal injury law in the legal industry. A collision with a self-driving car may become a products liability case if there is no human driver. Right now, cases against adverse drivers are fought under the common law idea of Negligence. If someone is going to drive a vehicle they have a duty to others using the roads to drive it in a safe manner. When they hit someone, they have breached that duty and caused them damage. And that is why we can sue.
But what duty does an operator of a self-driving car have? They put their trust in a machine. If they get injured there may be defense argument of assumption of the risk for the people in the self-driving car. The use of these autonomous cars raises many questions. To what standard shall we hold these vehicles? Should they be expected to drive even safer than humans? Or should they be held to a lower standard, after all, they are only computers. And computers are not perfect.
How many times has a computer died on you? Are you familiar with the blue screen of death? Do you install updates regularly? Do the updates regularly screw up your computer and you have to undo them?
What about the concept of negligent entrustment? In personal injury cases, if the owner of a vehicle lends the car to someone and that person gets in a collision, we name both the driver and the owner as defendants because the owner trusted the wrong person to drive their vehicle. This is seen all the time when parents let their kids drive. Does this idea transfer to the driverless car as well? The owner negligently entrusted the movement of the vehicle to the manufacturer of the vehicle? For that matter, not only is the manufacturer of the vehicle responsible, but the creator of the software moving the car could be responsible as well if it is a different entity.
How much responsibility should the owner of a self-driving car have in the maintenance of the driving system? An owner of a vehicle has a duty to maintain their vehicle in a non-dangerous condition, we just settled a case this year where a defendant’s trailer lost a wheel and smashed into our client’s vehicle. You are responsible for your vehicle. So where does the liability of the self-driving vehicle begin and where does it end?
These cars sound very cool and futuristic, but they evoke a lot of legal questions that should have been answered before they hit the road. And they need to be answered now. The technology is still in the testing phase, but it’s possible these cars will be available to the public starting in 2020.
Need advice? Feel you have a potential personal injury case? Contact the Law Offices of Alan M. Laskin in Sacramento California today.