Driverless Cars and the Future of Auto Accident Liability

driverless car renderingThe idea that cars could drive themselves was once though to be merely a fantasy. Today, virtually every major auto manufacturer is in a foot race to be the first to get driverless cars into production. In fact, there are 52 different companies in California alone that have been approved to test self-driving vehicles ranging from tech giants such as apple to automotive dinosaurs such ad BMW and Ford. Other states have also approved some on-the-road testing, including New York and Texas.

Nuro on the Road in Houston

If you are still a nay-sayer, meet Nuro. Nuro is a company based in Mountain View, California that is already in the process of putting driverless vehicles on the road. Fry’s Food Store in Scottsdale, Arizona has previously begun delivery using these autonomous vehicles. Two Kroger locations in Houston are now set to offer grocery delivery via driverless vehicles. Currently, the vehicles used are modified Prius’ that have a passenger in there for safety. However, the plan is to replace those vehicles with completely driverless and passengerless vehicles in the near future.  If this program runs smoothly, Kroger could be looking at expanding this to 100 more stores in the Houston area.

Grocery stores aren’t the only companies with an eye on Nuro’s technology.  Domino’s Pizza has announced plans to start using the Nuro R2 for driver-free pizza delivery.  The concept is simple. Yolu order your pizza, a Nuro vehicle arrives, you plug in a code and a door opens to a compartment containing your order. It is like a vending machine on wheels.

Other Applications

The application for a driverless delivery vehicle are limitless. Amazon deliveries, mail deliveries, groceries and retail to name a few. But it does not end with delivery vehicles. Driverless vehicles could render chauffeurs obsolete. Driving jobs could be going out the window. Top auto makers already estimate having true self-driving cars on the road by 2020.  By 2025, non-autonomous vehicles could be on their way out.  If you are currently teaching your kids to drive, it is safe to assume that driving is a skill your grand kids will likely never learn.

Who is Liable When a Self-Driving Car Crashes?

An estimated 95% of all car wrecks are caused by human error. If truly autonomous vehicles can eliminate the human error factor, the number of lives saved each year could be in the thousands.  So who is responsible if one of these vehicles gets in a wreck?

As technology such as driverless cars evolves, so must the law.  There will need to be regulation. Standards of safety set. Rigorous testing.  The run-of-the-mill car wreck may now very well become an expensive-to-prove product liability case.  Liability may very well hinge upon factors such as:

  • whether there is any retained driving control or whether the vehicle is fully automated,
  • who owns the vehicle,
  • whether performance standards were met,
  • whether safety testing was performed and properly reported to the appropriate government agency in the approval process, and;
  • whether the vehicle was properly assembled by the assembling company.

Product Liability Claim Costs

One of the biggest problems with this, is that turning typical car wreck cases into product liability cases could make them too cost-prohibitive for people to bring a claim to recover for the injuries and damages.  Product liability cases are expensive to pursue and typically require expert testimony—an expense the law does not usually allow recovery for in a personal injury case. It simply will not make sense for someone to spend $10,000, $20,000 even $100,000 on an expert when the case is a fender bender.

When a lawyer who handles auto collisions decides whether to take a case, she must balance the anticipate costs with the likely verdict.  If the injuries are worth less than six figures, then the cost of pursuing it makes taking a product liability case a bad gamble. It does not make sense to invest $50,000 in a case with only $85,000 in damages.  The net $35,000 gain probably will not cover the bills, much less, pay the attorney’s fees nor compensate the client.

Additionally, comparative and contributory negligence laws in the United States often give the defendant the claim is brought against, the right to as the jury to “apportion” responsibility upon other negligent actors, including the injured victim himself.  If there is a potential for liability to be reduced thereby reducing the judgment, a lawyer is going to be less willing to invest money in the case since any liability apportioned to the victim reduces the recovery.

Conclusion

top ten attorney blogAutonomous vehicles are a reality. They are here now, if even only used in a delivery driver capacity. As these vehicles become more advanced, we can expect them to have wide-spread uses.  Because there is no driver to be negligent, car wrecks may largely become expensive product liability claims. Due to the inadequacy of existing laws, victims may find themselves out in the cold when trying to pursue the run-of-the-mill auto collision.

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Paul Cannon

Paul Cannon has practiced personal injury trial law since 1995. He is Board Certified in Personal Injury Trial Law (2005). He has earned recognition as a Super Lawyer by Thompson Reuters in 2017 & 2018, and as a Top 100 Trial Lawyer by the National Trial Lawyers Association in 2017. He is a Shareholder, trial lawyer and online marketing manager at Simmons and Fletcher, P.C. His legal writings have been published by the Texas Bar Journal, Business.com, Lawyer.com HG Legal Resources, Lawfirms.com, and others. He has been asked to give education talks and media interviews on dog bite law.