The future is upon us. Uber Technologies, Tesla, Ford and all of the major vehicle manufacturers say they can and will produce self-driving vehicles. Ford has even promised that its fully self-driving, autonomous vehicle with no pedals and no steering wheel will be on the market within five (5) years. This seems very fast, but it might have happened even sooner if a Tesla semi-autonomous vehicle had not crashed recently killing the driver.
Self-driving cars may make some sense from a safety standpoint. Traffic fatalities increased 7.7% (35,200) in the last year and we are on course to set a record in 2016. An impediment to early marketing seems to be the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration which must adopt safety standards. This will be an unbelievably complex process that will evolve based on real world experience.
What will the transition period look like? Remember the old newsreels that show scenes of the first cars driving among horseback riders, wagons and carriages? It seems impossible, but I am sure it isn’t.
Another complex problem will be determing legal liability for property damage, injuries and death. Our law is based upon the bedrock principals of driver responsibility. 94% of car crashes are caused by driver error. Will legislators mandate that a vehicle’s owner and / or driver be held strictly liable for the damages caused by a self-driven vehicle? Will vehicle manufacturers be held strictly liable? After all, if the driver has no input, shouldn’t the manufacturer be responsible? But, you can bet liability insurance companies and vehicle manufacturers won’t like that approach. The alternatives to strict owner / driver or manufacturer accountability are a nightmare. Those alternatives would involve liability being predicated upon proof that the vehicle as designed and/or manufactured and/or marketed was defective, i.e., unreasonably dangerous, as that concept is now defined by existing law governing legal liability for defective products. While that idea might sound acceptable, as a practical matter virtually every car crash case involving an autonomous car would become a product liability case and, therefore, almost always prohibitively expensive to pursue.
Manufacturers will soon be ready to sell self-driving vehicles no matter how incredible it seems. Will government regulators and state legislators be ready?