How Will A Driverless Car Affect Car Accident Claims?

While we may not have gone wheels-up in our day-to-day commutes just yet, technology has advanced to the point where driverless cars are close to being a reality. In his paper Products Liability and Driverless Cars: Issues and Guiding Principles for Legislation, John Villasenor takes a look at how existing bodies of law can—or should—be applied to automated driving technology as it continues to rise. The issue of who is at fault in the wake of a car accident is often troublesome and contentious, but how will a driverless car affect car accident claims?

State and Federal Laws Focus on Driver

Villasenor is quick to point out that driverless car technology will not spell the end of car accidents and assessments of car accident fault. Villasenor considers car accidents and car accident fault to be very real barriers to the widespread rollout of driverless car technology. He’s not the only one. The San Diego Union Tribune and The Wall Street Journal, among other news outlets, have also questioned whether car accident fault and the attendant legal quagmire could retard the growth of the driverless vehicle sector.

Traditional car accident claims are generally matters of state tort law. Determining which driver is at fault in a car accident is either essential to resolving claims or, in states that have adopted no-fault car accident laws, completely inconsequential. Things get more complicated when dealing with commercial vehicles that cross state lines in the course of interstate commerce. Federal regulations are brought into play in such cases, and Villasenor argues that the commercial sector will play a large role in the expansion of driverless technology.

Shifting Focus of Liability From Driver to Car Manufacturer

Villasenor argues (not unconvincingly) that the concerns regarding car accident fault emanating from accidents with driverless vehicles are largely unfounded. His position is that established products liability law is sufficient to allow the driverless car sector to flourish. If a driverless car malfunctions and causes an accident, the manufacturer should be held liable for the damage or injuries. This isn’t a universal opinion, as other articles clearly show, but it is one that does make a modicum of sense. It follows that if a driverless car is defective in manufacture or design, those responsible for the design and manufacture should be on the hook for any damage caused. But as with any law, there are special interests on both sides of the issue that have very strong opinions on the matter.

How will a driverless car affect car accident claims? It remains to be seen. While there is a very real possibility that existing products liability law could be used as a base upon which to build a new body of legislation—both state and federal—to govern this emerging technology, traditional parties of interest in car accident claims (insurance companies, trial lawyers, and victims) will be vocal in their desire for the adoption of car accident laws that are based on traditional fault, and not just products liability.