The Legal Implications of Driverless Cars

Almost no one questions the idea that driverless and autonomous vehicles are the future. Just about every auto manufacturer in existence is working on their version of the driverless auto, from Tesla and Lexus to Ford and Toyota.

As the technology advances and becomes that much closer to widespread use—many of the auto manufacturers are now actively testing their platforms on open roads—it will grow just as necessary to regulate and address the legal implications of their use.

Who’s at Fault?

What happens, for example, when an autonomous vehicle crashes into a pedestrian or another motorist? Is it the driver at fault, who never had control of the vehicle in the first place? Is it the AI or automated system developer who created the driving software? Is it the auto manufacturer who assembled and supplied the vehicle?

How should we handle insurance? Once you remove the act of driving and give control to a computer or automated system, how do you determine what constitutes as safe versus risky driving?

Furthermore, when is it legal to take your hands completely off the steering wheel and leave the vehicle in control? Should there be restrictions on what you can do in the car? Should you be allowed to browse social media or use your smartphone while the car navigates for you, for example?

If the vehicle’s AI has to make a split second decision between saving your life or the lives of passengers in another car nearby, how should it go about doing that?

You can easily see why many of these questions would give pause to even the most supportive proponents of the technology.

As a society, we’ve only just started to consider the implications and consequences of this technology. In 2017, a total of 33 states introduced driverless vehicle legislation as opposed to 20 states the year prior. So, it’s clearly ramping up.

Today, 29 states have existing laws that deal with autonomous vehicles and their systems. But federal action is another concern, outside of local and state legislators. The National Highway and Transportation Safety Administration released new guidelines for automated driving systems in September of this year. The Senate is also working on introducing autonomous vehicle legislation.

Where Do Lawyers Fit In?

Even for the most seasoned law practitioners, it’s difficult to imagine how the landscape will change as a result of driverless vehicle adoption. Some feel that the technology will detract from regular practice, actually taking business away from the industry.

In reality, we have a lot to iron out before the autonomous technologies can operate unfettered and worry-free on our roadways. What is the insurance and product liability impact? How will privacy, security and customer data be handled? What happens when a vehicle experiences a data breach or cyber attack?

It is up to the legal world to assist with these policies, regulations, and practices, which means step one is about understanding the technology, how it operates and functions and what that means for anyone involved.

The truth is, while we know the technology is coming down the pipeline—and soon—we don’t know what that means for the state of the market. How long will it take, for instance, before driverless vehicles make up the majority of cars on the road? When looking at a vehicle a human is driving versus one a computer is operating, how do you determine faults?

The only certainty, at this point, is that we still have a lot of questions and considerations to resolve before we can make this technology available to all.

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