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Driverless cars & personal injury law – an uncertain future?
It seems that the automotive industry, like so many others, is headed down the path of automation. Spearheading this revolution are companies like Tesla and Google, who have slowly but surely begun to usher self-driving cars into the mainstream. While not quite “mainstream” just yet, the introduction of this burgeoning technology into our society raises a number of legal and logical questions that as of now have no definitive answers.
Will Driverless Cars be Safer?
One question that immediately comes to mind is whether self-driving cars will truly provide a safer driving experience. While it’s true that self-driving cars don’t text, drink or drive, it’s also true that technology is often prone to failure. Think about how frequently the technological devices you interact with daily experience some type of complication (i.e. a computer freeze, mysterious phone shutdown, etc.) While these issues are usually not catastrophic, it goes to show how fickle modern technology can be. One little error or freeze within a self-driving car’s hardware could be the difference between a normal driving experience and a life-threatening car accident. According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan, driverless cars have an accident rate of 9.1 crashes per 1 million miles, compared to only 4.1 crashes per million in cars operated by humans. Clearly, the technology just isn’t there yet.
While concern about placing trust in a computer to get people from place to place will likely last for some time, there are marked benefits to consider. Self-driving vehicles will likely never get lost, distracted, or drag race at a stoplight. They could also enable humans to be more productive during their ride, turning attention to other things like news or business-related activities. Ultimately, the jury is still out on how safe driverless cars will be. However, over 2.5 million injuries per year due to human-operated car accidents, the potential for self-driving cars may have significant benefit for society.
Liability in Driverless Car Accidents
The issue of potential liability for driverless car accidents is presently unsettled. Because driverless cars are still niche, we’ve yet to really see how the law is applied when accidents occur. Will injured parties attempt to sue the car companies, people behind the wheel, or both? Who is really at fault?
The first recorded pedestrian fatality from an autonomous vehicle occurred in March of 2018. A woman was crossing the street in Tempe, Arizona when an autonomous Uber vehicle struck and killed her. The woman’s family reached an unknown settlement with Uber less than two weeks after the accident.
Another noteworthy incident occurred in 2019 when a Florida man was killed after colliding with an 18-wheeler. At the time of the collision, his Tesla was operating in autopilot mode. The victim’s family is currently suing Tesla for wrongful death, though no settlement or verdict has been reached.
A subsequent lawsuit called Hudson v. Tesla and Oscar Enrique Gonzales Bustamante was filed in Florida. Here, the plaintiff’s Tesla was cruising at 80 mph in autopilot mode. The Tesla collided with a disabled vehicle on the side of the road, causing the plaintiff serious injuries and totaling his car. This lawsuit has yet to be decided, but its interesting to note that the plaintiff is pursuing compensation from both the car company (Tesla) and the owner of the disabled vehicle (Bustamante).
These three cases foreshadow the notion that victims will primarily seek compensation from the companies designing the faulty autonomous technology, as well as from the car companies themselves. In the first case mentioned, Uber was using a Ford Focus but was solely responsible for creating the faulty technology and, as such, were the party being sued.
In the second case, several charges have been levied against Tesla. These include charges of faulty technology and false advertising related to the efficacy of the vehicle’s autonomous capability. Allegations in the third case are much the same as the first and second.
Though no high-profile case has been decided in court, it appears from ongoing cases that the legal trend will be for injured parties to seek compensation from autonomous car companies, rather than autonomous car occupants. How this will shape the field of personal injury law isn’t totally clear, but it’s safe to say findings of fault will be a more complex issue in basic car accidents than ever before. Only as the technology continues to develop and more lawsuits are filed, however, will we know for sure.