The prospect of fully autonomous, self-driving cars is mind-boggling and reassuring at the same time. Most of us are comfortable with our own driving skills and are a bit leery of turning the wheel over to a computer. But when we consider the number of drivers on the road whom we don’t necessarily trust, and whose careless and reckless behavior accounted for more than 33,000 traffic deaths in 2012, we welcome technology that shows the potential of eliminating many such accidents.
Yet, although driverless cars are only experimental at the moment, there are concerns that they will be ready for the public before we have a fully developed body of liability law in place to protect consumers. Any jurisdiction that allows driverless cars to operate must be able to determine who is responsible when one of those cars causes an accident.
Prof. John Villasenor, who writes on questions of technology, public policy and the law, feels that the concerns are overblown and should not be used as an excuse to slow the introduction of auto technology that could make our highways safer. Writing in The Atlantic, Villasenor makes his case that products liability law already provides the legal framework necessary to address any issues driverless cars present. Plaintiffs would have several theories of liability through which they could seek to recover damages, such as:
- Negligence — If a product is not safe to be used in reasonably foreseeable ways, the producer of the product is negligent.
- Design defect — If software prompts a car to execute an unsafe maneuver or fails to prompt the car to avoid a hazard, there is a flaw in the design and the designer is liable.
- Manufacturing defect — If, during the build, a manufacturer introduces a flaw into a perfectly good design, that manufacturer is liable for any harm that defect causes.
- Breach of warranty — When a car does not perform as promised, the consumer has a right to recover for foreseeable harm.
Villasenor asserts that products liability law has proven to be adaptable to new technologies and fully autonomous cars should be no exception.
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