Legal Implications of Driverless Cars

Daniel Rice, professor of law & public policy practice at Syracuse University‘s Martin J. Whitman School of Management, is fascinated with the major positive change that driverless vehicle technology aims to bring forth. This fascination culminated with the publication of his research paper “The Driverless Car and the Legal System: Hopes and Fears as The Courts, Regulatory Agencies, Waymo, Tesla and Uber Deal With This Exciting and Terrifying New Technology” in the 2019 edition of the Journal for Strategic Innovation and Sustainability.

This paper covers how the “legal system in search of justice and private companies in search of profits” are beginning to introduce driverless vehicle technology into mainstream society. This introduction has been long in the making, as researchers at Carnegie Mellon University released the first self-driving car, the Terminator, in 1984. Both researchers and corporate entities, such as Cadillac, Tesla, Inc., Google and Uber have been working since then to reap the societal and economic benefits of self-driving cars, however, several barriers to success have arisen.

This continued dedication to launching the technology has largely stemmed from its immense potential to save lives. According to the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 94 percent of car accidents are caused by driver error, with the other six percent stemming from mechanical failures, environmental factors or unknown causes. Professor Rice believes that by taking human error out of the equation, driverless vehicles have the potential to eliminate 94 percent of vehicular accidents, as it is much easier to change technology than to change human behavior in a way that promotes safer driving.

Given that about one million people are killed each year worldwide in car accidents, this 94 percent decrease in accidents would directly correlate with lives saved. In the past, carmakers have introduced technology such as airbags, adaptive cruise control and ABS brake systems to reduce the fatality rate of car accidents—driverless vehicle technology seems to be the natural next step in this progression of vehicle safety features.

Despite the best efforts of many corporations, however, driverless vehicles have been slow to fully emerge on the mainstream markets and on the road. Intense media coverage surrounding several self-driving car accidents (which mainly implicated Tesla, Inc. and Uber) have caused public concern about the safety of self-driving cars, despite the technology’s major potential to make roads safer at large.

After chronicling three of these Tesla-related accidents, Professor Rice mentioned in his paper that the government was also largely at fault for self-driving technology’s slow advent into society. Ultimately, the government has the final say of when these cars and trucks will emerge on the road, and issues with liability and car insurance premiums seem to be slowing regulators from making the crucial decisions needed to launch driverless cars into the forefront of the car market.

For example, in a standard car accident, fault is key in determining the legal implications of the accident. However, when a self-driving car is involved in an accident, the judicial system’s question becomes who is at fault for the error when there is no human driver to blame. Based upon the legal principle of strict liability, carmakers have always been held accountable for defective cars. Therefore, it is likely that the burden of liability for self-driving cars will fall upon corporate entities. Regardless of government regulatory bodies’ final decisions related to self-driving vehicles, it is almost undeniable that in the coming years, these futuristic vehicles will become increasingly popular.

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