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Who will foot the legal bill for your self-driving car?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

If a self-driving car gets in an accident and hurts someone, who is at fault? This isn’t an academic question. Unless automakers get a consistent answer as to whom will be held accountable, and when, the era of autonomous vehicles may be off to a rocky start.

Ideally, automakers would like to see regulations set at the federal level: one set of rules for each entire country, rather than different rules for each province, state, county, or region. That may or may not happen. For instance, only a small number of states in the U.S. allow self-driving cars to be tested on their roadways, but already, the laws governing liability vary from state to state. (I assume that, in the European Union, such laws would be consistent from country to country — please comment if I assume incorrectly.)

This inconsistency is but one of the legal roadblocks to a self-driving future, according to a recent article published by Law360.com. For instance, the article also discusses how an automaker may be subject to liability claims if it simply designs a vehicle in a way that allows someone to install driverless technology.

Will all this put a stop to self-driving cars? Don’t count on it. People will inevitably demand cars with autonomous capabilities, if a recent survey is anything to go by. And automakers will get in the game if for no other reason than to stay competitive and attract customers (which, when you think of it, is the raison d’être of any business).

In fact, automakers may have little choice. According to Law360, some automakers have been subject to lawsuits because they didn’t install electronic stability control in their vehicles, a technology known to save thousands of lives annually. If some self-driving technologies can indeed reduce accidents, as research suggests, then automakers may, in effect, be forced to deploy them. And call me naïve, but I assume that governments could likewise be held accountable if they implement laws that slow the deployment of accident-reducing technology.

My take? It seems to be in everyone’s interest to make the self-driving car happen.

Read the full Law360 article here. Registration is required, but is fast and painless.

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