Who Gets Sued When Your Robot Car Crashes?

Autonomous vehicles will save thousands of lives. But what about the ones they take?

Robot cars will save lots of lives, but they'll also open up some tricky liability issues?
National Journal
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Alex Brown
March 25, 2014, 8:53 a.m.

You are a ter­rible driver.

By hu­man stand­ards, you might be pretty good, but you’ll nev­er be able to match the re­ac­tion time, 360-de­gree mon­it­or­ing, and pres­ci­ent aware­ness autonom­ous vehicles will soon provide.

By al­most any es­tim­ate, tak­ing the wheel out of the hands of hu­man drivers — when the tech­no­logy is ready — will save thou­sands of lives. “Hu­man be­ings just aren’t that great as drivers,” said Rand’s James An­der­son. Driver­less cars “could save bil­lions of dol­lars and thou­sands of lives.”

But what hap­pens when something goes wrong? Ro­bot cars may pre­vent thou­sands of ac­ci­dents, but even­tu­ally, in­ev­it­ably, there will be a crash.

“Who’s re­spons­ible if the car crashes?” Audi’s Brad Stertz said earli­er this year. “That’s go­ing to be an is­sue.”

It’s tough to ar­gue the pas­sen­ger (who may well be the vic­tim) should be held re­spons­ible if a car con­trolled by a com­puter runs it­self off the road. But should auto­makers face long, ex­pens­ive law­suits when life-sav­ing tech­no­logy suf­fers a rare glitch?

“Auto­maker li­ab­il­ity is likely to in­crease. Crashes are much more likely to be viewed as the fault of the car and the man­u­fac­turer,” An­der­son said. “If you’re an auto­maker and you know you’re go­ing to be sued [more fre­quently], you’re go­ing to have re­ser­va­tions.”¦ The leg­al li­ab­il­ity test doesn’t take in­to ac­count the long-run be­ne­fits.”

In oth­er words, even though a tech­no­logy is an over­all boon to the great­er good, its rare in­stances of fail­ure — and sub­sequent law­suits — won’t take that in­to ac­count. That could slow the move­ment of driver­less cars to the mass mar­ket if auto­makers are wary of leg­al battles.

“The auto in­surers are think­ing a lot about this,” An­der­son said. In­surers, as well as body shops and trauma cen­ters, are among the mem­bers of the “crash eco­nomy” that will be dis­rup­ted when ro­bot cars rule the road.

As they grapple with what autonom­ous vehicles might mean for their in­dustry, the leg­al fron­ti­er re­mains un­cer­tain as well. One pos­sible solu­tion? A pay­out fund set up to com­pensate vic­tims of driver­less car ac­ci­dents. That could be modeled sim­il­ar to the Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment’s vac­cine in­jury com­pens­a­tion fund, which takes a 75-cent tax from every pur­chased vac­cine. The no-fault pro­gram helps those who have been hurt by vac­cine-re­lated in­cid­ents without ex­pos­ing the med­ic­al com­munity to leg­al battles and ex­pens­ive dam­ages pay­outs.

In the early stages, sub­sidies may be re­quired to help driver­less cars take hold in the mar­ket, ac­cord­ing to Rand’s re­port on the tech­no­logy’s ad­op­tion. Part of the money al­lot­ted for that could be set aside to help po­ten­tial vic­tims.

“The over­all crash costs are go­ing to go down,” An­der­son said. “How do you make sure that the amount that’s saved goes in such a way to en­cour­age ef­fi­cient ad­op­tion? “¦ One of the key is­sues is to make sure that the win­ners com­pensate the losers. Clearly there’s go­ing to be a lot of win­ners. Auto­makers may be in the loser cat­egory if they face in­creas­ing li­ab­il­ity suits. Some form of straight­en­ing that out might make sense.”


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