As the pace of technology innovation accelerates, we should all be mindful of the law of unintended consequences. Take the Internet for example. It’s doubtful that the World Wide Web developers in the 1990s anticipated the identity theft problems of the 21st century. Nor did cell phone manufacturers of that era take precautions to prevent traffic accidents caused by texting drivers.
The same principle is likely to be applied to one of the most revolutionary advances in technology: the introduction of autonomous or “self-driving” vehicles guided by artificial intelligence (AI).
There is no question that self-driving vehicles can make life easier for millions of Americans, including individuals with disabilities that keep them from driving. However, this advance will also create safety and liability issues for owners, operators and passengers, as demonstrated by the recent death of a pedestrian struck by a self-driving Uber vehicle in Arizona.
Minimizing responsibility for harm
The State of Florida has long recognized the dangers of operating an automobile, whose size and speed give it tremendous destructive power. In a landmark ruling from 1920 – Southern Cotton Oil Co. v. Anderson (88 Fla 441) – the Florida Supreme Court upheld a $7,500 verdict to the injured plaintiff, stating: “A motor vehicle operated on the public highways is a dangerous instrumentality, and the owner who entrusts it to another to operate is liable for injury caused to others by the negligence of the person to whom it is entrusted.”
For many decades, that ruling guided Florida courts in determining liability and assessing damages for plaintiffs in automotive cases. However, legislative lobbying efforts by business groups on the state and national level have stripped away some of the potential remedies for victims and their families in motor vehicle accidents.
In Florida today, there is a cap on the damages that the non-negligent owner of a non-commercial vehicle would have to pay in the event of a serious accident. Often times, the driver has insufficient liability insurance coverage leaving an injured person (or family members of a deceased person) facing a cap on damages and limited recovery from the owner.
The situation is even worse when it comes to rental cars. Under the federal Graves Amendment, a non-negligent rental car company would only be liable for a maximum of $10,000 for an accident involving its vehicles. Imagine the situation of an injured pedestrian facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills trying to collect from a negligent, uninsured foreign driver who is no longer in the United States.
Current motor vehicle liability laws are skewed against the victim. The complexities of who is responsible for the operation of an autonomous vehicle have the potential of, from a practical standpoint, making it virtually impossible for a victim to recover damages.
Who will be accountable?
Looking ahead, the debut of self-driving vehicles at some point in the future is likely to complicate the tangled web of safety-related liability issues. After all, there are more parties involved in the process of driving the autonomous car.
That means it will be much more difficult to determine just what went wrong in a fatal collision or serious crash, and determine who was responsible for the accident. For instance,
Was there a product defect in the vehicle produced by the manufacturer, such as a poorly designed brake pad?
Was there a problem with an aftermarket technology product, such as a navigation system?
Did the vehicle’s self-driving application malfunction and did the software developer cause the problem?
Was the latest software installed correctly in the vehicle?
Was there an error on a computer chip made in another country?
Did the sensors in the car transmitting visual information back to the data malfunction?
Was there a delay in the satellite transmission of that data?
Did lack of maintenance contribute to the accident?
What if a hacker were to take control of the vehicle or kidnap the riders?
All of these issues need to be considered when assessing what went wrong in a motor vehicle accident and which parties’ actions caused or contributed to a life-ending or life-altering tragedy. Existing law on product liability is not sufficient to cover all of these potential scenarios of fault.
A challenging situation
From a practical point of view, it will certainly be more time consuming and expensive for both plaintiffs and defendants to resolve the key legal issues of liability. One can picture the jury in courtroom – years after an accident occurred – as they grapple with conflicting testimony from dozens of expert witnesses on who was at fault in a crash.
Certainly, self-driving vehicles can have a positive impact on many aspects of Americans’ lives. Instances of drunk driving, for instance, might plunge, along with the stress levels of millions of commuters who could utilize their mobile devices while being driven.
Nevertheless, before autonomous vehicles are unleashed on our roadways, civic leaders, transportation experts, lawyers, and consumer safety representatives need to analyze the risks, as well as the benefits and establish a workable framework of liability assessment for accidents and injuries involving self-driving vehicles. While there are no guarantees in life, accountability for safety must be the top priority for all parties in this new technology sector.