The Perils of Autonomous Cars

Technology and innovation in the automotive industry have been constantly advancing at an extraordinary rate. As technology grows and vehicles become more advanced, we will face new legal challenges, and we will need to adapt our laws and policies to address these changes. Autonomous vehicle technology has been the most recent development in the automotive industry, and it’s been grabbing news headlines across the country. An autonomous vehicle is a self-guided vehicle that requires no steering wheel or gas/brake pedals. These vehicles require no driver and the passengers can just enter a location and sit back let the car do the rest.

Google has been working on autonomous vehicle technology for years, and one of its driverless vehicles made the news last month for being involved in the first accident with reported injuries. Google’s vehicle was rear-ended at approximately 17 mph by another vehicle being operated by a distracted driver. There were no serious injuries as a result of this accident. However, the occupants of both vehicles complained of neck and back pain. Also, it appears that the driver of the vehicle that rear-ended Google’s car was at-fault in this accident. According to several reports, Google’s autonomous vehicle was waiting at a stoplight when the other vehicle ran into the back of Google’s car.  This is also consistent with the data produced by Google’s vehicle that shows where other vehicles were at the time of the accident, what color the light was, the speed the other vehicle was traveling at the moment of impact, and other information about the conditions at the relevant time.

It seems clear that the driver that rear-ended Google’s car is liable for the damages in this accident. Nevertheless, the accident still raises questions about how our legal system will respond to this emerging technology and how it will be perceived by the public not to mention the impact that this may have on liability standards. For example, Google has reported issues with its technology being confused by certain unpredictable activity, such as when one of their vehicles encountered a woman in a wheelchair chasing a duck with a broom. Google’s vehicle stopped and waited because it was unsure of what to expect from the unusual object on its radar. What if one of Google’s driverless cars is confused by a situation and is involved in an accident?  What if in its confusion the car is being too cautious by not proceeding and another vehicle hits the autonomous vehicle? Will a jury favor the too-cautious technology of the autonomous vehicle, or will they prefer to side with a human-driver that encountered the same situation yet had a different appreciation of the possible dangers and expected a different outcome?  To what extent will the programmers and creators of this technology be held liable?  These are situations and questions that we will soon be faced with and will most definitely impact how we assess and analyze liability in automotive industry.

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