Self-Driving Cars: A Litany of Legal Matters To Ponder

Apr 23, 2019















Determining who’s at fault in an automobile accident generally considers several things, such as:

  • Photos of the accident scene
  • Witness statements
  • Negligence by one of the drivers
  • Damage to each of the cars


But what if one of the cars involved has no steering wheel, or no brake and gas pedals? In fact, no driver?


When we reach the point where pedestrians or other drivers can no longer look a human driver in the eyes to pick up body language or intentions, the whole roadway dynamic changes. As does the idea of legal culpability.


The legal implications raised by the looming spectre of driverless cars seem endless. Not that we’re trying to accelerate the debate, or put the brakes on the autonomous vehicle revolution, because there are a host of benefits to the technology. But let’s test-drive this list of Top 5 Legal Questions arising from self-driving cars:


  1. Who’s At Fault?

Imagine a driverless car accident: Is the vehicle’s manufacturer at fault, or perhaps the developer of the AI driving software system? Or some combination of both?

If a self-driving car has an accident with a human-driven car, how would the laws determine which vehicle was more “reckless”? What is “reckless” when it comes to autonomous vehicles?


  1. Potential Legal Costs for Driverless Vehicle Manufacturers

Under current laws, cases involving self-driving vehicle accidents would most likely be tied to product liability laws. Was negligent design or manufacture the cause? Or breach of the duty to warn? The most recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice show that the median damages in human error automobile accident cases were about $16,000; for any type of product liability cases: $748,000. Whereas insurers and courts have 100 years of experience assessing the costs and compensation of human-driven auto accidents, they’re now more like the pimply-faced pubescent getting behind the wheel for the first time, when it comes to assessing the costs of a robotic-driven car crash.


  1. Cybersecurity & Privacy Concerns

Self-driving vehicles will be, by definition, connected to the grid. Cars will need to talk to one another. They will also record data on when and where the vehicle and its human passengers are at all times. Can this information be stolen?

And will these “smart” cars be smart enough to evade hackers? Will they be vulnerable to a cyber attack that can impede the vehicle’s steering or braking?


  1. New ‘Driving Laws’ will be needed

If a computer is at the controls, what would constitute “risky driving”? Would the hands-free human – the sole ‘passenger’ – be able to text on their smartphone while the car is in motion? Check twitter while cruising to work? What responsibility will they be expected to uphold?


  1. Employment Lawsuits

This area of law could face an explosive future. The list of jobs that could be become obsolete upon the full integration of driverless vehicles is more than just the obvious taxi and Uber drivers, truck drivers, and bus drivers. Think things like auto-body mechanics; parking attendants; gas station attendants; entire truck stop diners… The list goes on.


Are We There Yet?


One thing is obvious: There will be a myriad of legal implications when it comes to self-driving cars. Lawyers everywhere should be on alert for a wild ride. So grab hold of the wheel. If you can find one.