Products Liability and Driverless Cars

Products Liability and Driverless Cars

Posted on

Wed, 05/14/2014 - 5:34pm

Written by: John Villasenor, PhD at The Brookings Institute 

Executive Summary

As driverless cars—or more formally, autonomous vehicles—continue to attract growing interest and investment, the associated liability issues are also getting increased attention. Often, this attention comes in the form of suggestions that liability concerns will slow or even completely prevent consumer access to advanced autonomous vehicle technology.

That would be a mistake. While liability will always be important with respect to motor vehicle operation, automation will dramatically increase safety on the highways by reducing both the number and severity of accidents. To some extent, it already has. For example, electronic stability control systems, which help drivers maintain control on turns and slippery surfaces by automatically selecting which wheels to use for braking, have saved thousands of lives.1 And, they have done so without confronting the courts with insurmountable questions regarding liability.

Of course, emerging autonomous vehicle technologies are much more sophisticated than electronic stability control and can handle many more of the functions that today are performed by human drivers. Over the next decade, spurred by new state laws permitting the operation of autonomous vehicles and by continued investment in research and development, many more vehicle automation technologies will transition out of the laboratory and into widespread commercial use.

This paper provides a discussion of how products liability law will impact autonomous vehicles, and provides a set of guiding principles for legislation that should—and that should not—be enacted. In some very specific, narrow respects, state-level legislative clarity regarding autonomous vehicle liability can be beneficial. Vehicle manufacturers that sell non-autonomous vehicles, for example, should not be liable for defects in third-party vehicle automation systems installed in the aftermarket. But broad new liability statutes aimed at protecting the manufacturers of autonomous vehicle technology are unnecessary.

In short, the liability concerns raised by vehicle automation are legitimate and important. But they can be addressed without delaying consumer access to the many benefits that autonomous vehicles will provide.The legal precedents established over the last half a century2 of products liability litigation will provide manufacturers of autonomous vehicle technology with a very strong set of incentives to make their products as safe as possible. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they will succeed. However, despite these efforts, there will inevitably be some accidents attributable in whole or in part to defects in future vehicle automation systems. While this will raise complex new liability questions, there is no reason to expect that the legal system will be unable to resolve them.

For more videos and full article, check out The Brookings Institute.

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Teaser: 

As driverless cars—or more formally, autonomous vehicles—continue to attract growing interest and investment, the associated liability issues are also getting increased attention. Often, this attention comes in the form of suggestions that liability concerns will slow or even completely prevent consumer access to advanced autonomous vehicle technology.

Written by: John Villasenor, PhD at The Brookings Institute 

Executive Summary

As driverless cars—or more formally, autonomous vehicles—continue to attract growing interest and investment, the associated liability issues are also getting increased attention. Often, this attention comes in the form of suggestions that liability concerns will slow or even completely prevent consumer access to advanced autonomous vehicle technology.