Self-driving cars have always been more science fiction than reality — until now.

Google is currently testing autonomous cars in California and Nevada, with encouraging results — in the first 300,000 miles, no accidents have been reported. Google says they will be releasing a consumer-ready product to the general public within five years.

Self-Driving = Accident Free?

Every year, more than 30,000 people in the U.S. die as a result of automobile crashes, and around two million are injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

While a driver-free road would not likely be accident free, given the number of crashes caused by mechanical and computer errors, weather conditions, pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and bad luck, Google’s self-driving car promises to help eliminate car accidents resulting from human error, including:

  • Distracted driving
  • Drinking and driving
  • Drowsy driving

Without human drivers who get behind the wheel after they’ve been drinking, are sleepy, drive distracted, drive while texting or talking on the phone, or drive too fast, we should see a dramatic decrease in car accidents. While dropping motor vehicle accident rates is definitely good news, it begs the question: Where will this leave personal injury law, personal injury plaintiffs, and personal injury lawyers?

A Question of Duty

While today’s motor vehicle liability laws are built around the clear distinction between the driver and his vehicle. The driver has the duty to exercise reasonable care when operating his vehicle, and the vehicle’s manufacturer has the duty to build safe cars free of defects.

But what duties will a driver have once he relinquishes all control of his vehicle over to the vehicle itself? Will the vehicle’s manufacturer assume complete liability for all accidents? Since Google was recently ordered to incorporate manual override controls in their self-driving vehicles, it seems unlikely that automobile manufacturers will be expected to shoulder all the responsibility.

The Changing Legal Landscape

Automobile insurance and car accident lawsuits are a multi-billion-dollar business, and the risk of accidents is why states mandate that drivers carry insurance, for which many drivers might otherwise be unwilling to pay. Reducing the number of accidents through self-driving automobiles might result in the downsizing of car insurance companies and redirecting lawyers toward suing automobile manufacturers instead of negligent drivers.

Although machines might have the ability to react faster and more predictably than human beings, combining machines and humans on the same roads will likely lead to some unpredictable types of accidents, even if self-driving cars function as expected. Some flaws in self-driving technology will not be completely apparent until the cars are put to a real road test.

Obviously, the legal issues surrounding self-driving vehicles are extremely complex and will require extensive and likely unconventional solutions as unique as the cars themselves.

Image by Mark Doliner

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