World’s First Driverless Car Accident Requires Rethinking Of Rules Of Legal Liability

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Today came news that a prototype robot-driven car, developed by Google, was at fault in a car accident near Google’s Mountain View, CA headquarters. Google’s engineers, for their part, claim that a human driver who overrode the robotic autopilot was at fault in the accident, rather than the software that normally drives the vehicle.
Robotically-driven cars are inevitable. The Google Car involved in the Mountain View accident had logged 160,000 miles without incident. We are really close to the mass development of very reliable robotically-driven cars.
And when the day comes that robotically-driven cars are common and their use widespread, we will have to have a reworking of the current legal regime of fault-based negligence in car accidents. Ideally, we should get started on that overhaul of our legal principles right now to insure that fear of liability does not stifle the marketing of driverless cars.
To see why we need to change the laws that govern car accidents in order to accommodate driverless cars, imagine a situation where a driverless vehicle is responsible for a car accident and the human operator did not interfere with or override the robot pilot. Who should be liable for the damages? The “driver” who did nothing other than sit in the car’s driver seat and select the car’s destination?
It would be difficult to hold the human “driver” at fault in such an accident under the fault-based negligence regime that currently governs car accidents. After all, the conduct of the driver who caused the accident (getting in the car, programming in the car’s destination) is indistinguishable from the conduct of the driver who gets in a car, programs its destination and arrives safely at his destination. It is difficult to see how the conduct of the former driver, who got in an accident, can be considered negligent, given that our Anglo-American concept of negligence requires that a person liable for negligence have acted “unreasonably” and the driver who was involved in the accident acted in the exact same way as the driver whose voyage was entirely uneventful.
Since, presumably, most accidents involving robot-driven vehicles will be due to some software error, perhaps the victims of robot car accidents will sue Google or other robot car manufacturers in product liability actions for selling defective products (defective software code). Such a system would insure that accident victims are compensated, but it would also mean that robot car manufacturers — the Googles, Fords and Toyotas of the world — would become the insurer of every car accident. Could any car manufacturer afford such a burden? Likely not.
It seems what we need therefore — in order to insure that the victims of robot-driven cars are compensated — is new legislation which would change the common law rules that govern car accidents. In particular, we need a system of compulsory auto insurance and a new legislatively-created rule that the owners of driverless cars are responsible for all accidents that they cause, regardless of whether they were piloting the car at the moment the accident occurred.
Such a change would replace our current negligence-based system of liability for car accidents with a strict liability regime that makes cars’ owners automatically liable for any damage caused by their cars, but it seems the only workable legal framework for a future of driverless cars.
Under the current legal regime, car manufacturers would have to insure every accident on their own, a burden that no company, even one as large as Google, can afford.

This blog in maintained by the Boston car accident lawyers at The Law Office of Alan H. Crede, P.C.