Computer Operated Cars: New Driving and Legal Challenges

How will the possibly, perhaps inevitably, driverless future impact motor vehicle accidents? In 2015 there were over 6 million reported car crashes that resulted in over 2 million injuries.[1]  The primary cause behind most motor vehicle crashes is human error; for all the things humans do well, driving isn’t necessarily one of them.

In 2014 Tesla released the Model S, which included a tech package option that had autopilot features.[2]  Tesla’s idea was to have a system that could handle some of the responsibilities of driving to eliminate some of the deficiencies inherent in humans drivers.  Tesla, among other car manufacturers and some tech companies, believe computer operated cars could someday eliminate human errors in driving entirely.[3]

Unfortunately, in 2016 a Tesla car operating on autopilot resulted in a fatal crash for the car’s driver.[4]  The crash was an unfortunate tragedy, but the incident raised a number important legal questions:

  • Who was at fault for the crash?
  • If Tesla was at fault, who at the company was to blame?
  • Was it someone on the factory line who made a mistake?
  • Or was it perhaps a tech engineer who made a mistake in software design?

These questions are important, not just for Tesla, but car manufacturers and tech companies alike for the foreseeable future. Major tech companies, such as Apple and Google, and auto manufacturers are investing in computer operated car projects.[5]  Will computer operated cars be able to eliminate car collisions entirely?  Likely the answer is no, even with computer operated cars the chance for human error will still exist.  What is almost certain is that computer operated cars will cause a radical shift in who is to blame and how insurance companies and attorneys handle the aftermath of motor vehicle collisions.

If there is to be a transition from human operated cars to computer operated cars there will, no doubt, be a period where computer and human operated vehicles share the road.  If there are computer operated vehicles and human operated vehicles on the road and an accident occurs, who will be at fault?  Driver, programmer, designer?  Even if all cars are computer operated and there is a crash, finding the source of blame will be difficult and raise new legal issues for the courts to consider.

Part of the process of integrating computer operated cars onto the road will be trusting computers to drive for us, but the law will also have to respond to the consequences of computer operated vehicles.  Hopefully the end result is lowering the 6 million accidents and 2 million injuries a year to significantly lower numbers, but regardless of how successful computer operated cars are at making the roadways safer, the law will also need to respond to protect all members of the community.

[1] NHTSA https://www.nhtsa.gov/

[2] https://www.tesla.com/autopilot

[3] https://www.tesla.com/autopilot; https://waymo.com/journey/; https://www.reuters.com/article/us-apple-autos/apple-scientists-disclose-self-driving-car-research-idUSKBN1DM08H

[4] http://www.businessinsider.com/details-about-the-fatal-tesla-autopilot-accident-released-2017-6

[5] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-apple-autos/apple-scientists-disclose-self-driving-car-research-idUSKBN1DM08H; https://waymo.com/journey/