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Planning for the future: crash liability in self-driving cars

California has always been a trend-setting state. And when it comes to trends and innovations in technology, Silicon Valley is second to none. Few innovations are as coveted as fully automated cars. Although they are not ready for mass production yet, chances are good that when they are, the first consumers will be California drivers.

Google has garnered a lot of media attention in recent years for its work on driverless cars. But Google employees are not the only group of innovators working to make human drivers obsolete. Automakers and independent researchers are vigorously pursuing fully automated vehicles, inspired by the promise of driver-less commutes, the elimination of traffic jams and a significant reduction in car accident rates.

To be sure, it is unlikely that fully automated cars could completely eliminate crashes. This raises an interesting question: Who would be legally liable for a car accident when the vehicles weren’t being driven by humans? Currently, drivers who cause car accidents due to distracted driving or other negligent behaviors can face civil lawsuits and, at times, criminal charges.

But once fully automated vehicles become a reality, crash-related personal injury lawsuits as we currently think of them might more often become products liability cases. If and when an accident occurs in a driverless vehicle, it will likely be the result of a software error or vehicle defect. As such, the auto manufacturer could be held liable.

Some might argue that it is premature to start discussing these issues. But it is important to remember that vehicles already contain some automated features like cruise control and parallel parking assistance. Although fully automated cars are not yet commercially available, functional prototypes do exist. And when cars can eventually drive themselves, we need to make sure that we have the legal framework in place to address any issues that arise.

Source: Brookings, "Who Pays for a Car Accident When There is no Driver?" Joshua Bleiberg, April 28, 2014

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