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When a self-driving car gets in an accident, who is liable for the damage or injuries?

The question is at the heart of a number of debates going on in the industry right now. There have been proposals that suggest a certain amount of legal immunity for those who create driverless car technologies, to prevent excessive litigation. The idea is that self-driving cars are expected to be much safer and to save many lives on the road. Thus, their manufacturers should have some legal protection for the greater good.

The American Association for Justice (AAJ), however, argues that blanket immunity proposals are a bad idea. In their report, “Driven to Safety: Robot Cars and the Future of Liability,” they state that such proposals “underestimate the ability of the courts to adapt to new technology and guide society’s beliefs on what is right and wrong.”

AAJ Advocates for Strict Liability in Self-Driving Car Accidents

The AAJ agrees that self-driving cars will improve safety. They state that widespread adoption could potentially prevent 90 percent of crashes and save thousands of lives every year.

Other changes are also expected to occur. Some experts see the automobile industry changing from one based on car ownership to one based on ride-share services, which will, in turn, reduce the need for auto insurance, and even demolish the idea of personal car ownership. With these changes, traditional approaches to liability may also need to change.

Some have proposed no-fault insurance or other forms of manufacturer immunity, but the AAJ suggests that we rely on strict liability. A plaintiff would need to prove that the defendant was responsible, as usual, which will hold automakers accountable for crashes, and continue to inspire them to make their cars as safe as possible.

In addition, the AAJ states that such a system “will be the only way to guarantee that humans and governments do not end up footing the bill for collisions over which they have no control.”

Self-Driving Cars Create Complications in Liability

If a vehicle is fully autonomous and something goes wrong, it seems plain that the manufacturer should be liable for damages. But questions arise on issues concerning hacking, or when the car is autonomous, but the driver can still take over when necessary.

Such was the issue with the Tesla self-driving car that crashed in the summer of 2016. Ohio resident Joshua Brown was behind the wheel and was killed in the accident. Tesla admitted that some of its systems had failed, but was also quick to point out that the driver was supposed to keep his hands on the wheel.

There is the question of how long it takes for the driver to re-take control of the car, as well, and the very real difficulty drivers have in staying mentally engaged when they’re not physically engaged in driving the car.

The AAJ maintains that the courts can handle these types of issues, as they have done so in the past. They state that though strict liability may not be necessary yet, it may be the obvious solution down the road.

“It would hold manufacturers to a high standard, offer a safety net to consumers, and allow technology to thrive,” they state.

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