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Who’s Liable For A Self-Driving Car?

This is a question that haunts the dreams of car manufacturers more than it does car owners. If a car has no driver and instead holds two or more mostly equal passengers, then obviously none of them can be held responsible if the car crashes into something. Instead, assuming none of the passengers interfered somehow with the car’s functions, the responsibility for an accident falls squarely on the shoulders of its creators. And it’s because of this that you won’t see a completely self-driving car on the road anytime within the near future.

Partial Intelligence, Zero Liability

There are a wide variety of vehicles, particularly on the luxury end of things, which already provide their drivers with a number of “driver assistance” programs. The manufacturer adds a variety of sensors and cameras to the various sides of the vehicle, all of which are cleverly hidden to maintain its sleek profile, and they can detect things like the lines on the road, street signs, nearby vehicles, pedestrians, and animals both small and large.

Depending on the car’s exact package, the driver can receive warnings about straying across the lines, moving vehicles both in front and behind, and vehicles which are hiding in the car’s blind spot. Drivers can also see what’s on their cameras to see behind them, to get a bird’s eye view through a special composite image, and also see at night past the reach of their headlights. Finally, some cars also control the brake and accelerator to some extent, enough so that it can adapt to changes in traffic speed and start braking for an emergency during the split second it takes a human to react.

However, all of these new, intelligent features carry a warning: these aids are not designed to replace a driver’s own wariness, and there are very real limits on what they can and can’t do. As such, while driving aids are meant to help prevent crashes, they are not to blame if a crash happens anyway.

Statistics Versus Liability

When most AI forecasters look to the future of self-driving cars, they see the tipping point as the moment when a software program can successfully move a car from point A to point B and produce fewer accidents than the average human being. That makes the most logical sense, after all, and the reason we create computer programs is so that they can be more precise than humans.

However, “fewer” probably won’t be good enough for automakers, not when they have to pay damages for every single crash instead of the individual drivers and their individual insurance policies. They’ll want perfection, or at least as near as they can get to it, before they’ll be ready to take over from drivers completely.

There’s also the added wrinkle that some people think of cars as being more than just people-movers. To them, a car can be a high-performance masterwork of art, engineering, and design, and as such to avoid driving it would be a sin. Between that, the high cost of a powerful and adaptive AI, and the fact that old cars typically stay on the road for roughly 15-20 years, it’s likely that there will be plenty of human drivers even after self-driving cars are introduced. This means the driving AIs need to behave perfectly not just around other self-driving cars but also around the far less perfect human drivers.

So while the list of “driver’s aids” will likely continue to grow throughout the next few years, and while they may impose themselves more directly over the vehicle (but only if you turn them on), and while they may even become more widespread in low-end cars, it’s unlikely that any of the major manufacturers will even give you the option of letting your car take complete control for some years to come. Self-driving cars may soon perform better than humans at avoiding accidents, but they’ll have to do a lot better than before automakers will be satisfied.

Michael J. Babboni's wide-ranging legal career is based on the strong belief that everyone should be treated fairly and have access to effective legal help. Michael began putting his beliefs in action by helping the people of St. Petersburg Florida get what they are owed in civil trials fighting to protect families by making corporations pay, and honor their obligations.

Who’s Liable For A Self-Driving Car?

Goldman Babboni Fernandez
Murphy & Walsh

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