The spate of auto recalls during 2015 made us wonder about a statistic that safety advocates and motor vehicle manufacturers regularly quote. An estimated 33,000 people die in car accidents every year in this country, they say, and 90 percent of those fatalities are the result of human error. Drunk drivers, people who do not wear their seat belts, drivers who ignore traffic lights — to misquote “King Kong,” the thinking is generally “Twasn’t motor vehicles but human error that caused the crash.”
Which human made the error? Was that person even in the car? Product liability law tells us that it could have been a worker at the air bag manufacturing facility or a mechanical engineer sitting at a computer in a car company’s corporate cube farm.
These questions are all the more pressing when a driverless car is involved in an accident. Of course, this technology is meant to usher in an accident-free era. Logically, though, wouldn’t the human error just move up the line? In the end, who is liable when the driverless car crashes?
A number of carmakers, including Volvo and Google, have pledged that they will take full responsibility — they will accept all liability — if their driverless vehicle causes an accident. Skeptics suggest these pledges are no more than clever marketing. What manufacturer does not stand behind its product?
It could take some time for the law to catch up with the technology. Right now, insurance companies and law enforcement work off what amounts to a liability hierarchy when investigating accidents. First, was the driver drunk, distracted or inexperienced? Was the victim wearing a seat belt (if not, is the driver responsible?)? All possibilities are exhausted before they move on to road conditions and other external factors.
If it looks as if the vehicle itself is defective, there are still questions about who is liable. Was it the carmaker’s corporate culture or a faulty component made by a supplier?
The law will adapt to the driverless reality, but it’s hard to guess what it will look like and when it will change.
Source: Insurance Journal, “Driverless Cars Give Lawyers Bottomless List of Defendants,” Keith Naughton and Margaret Cronin Fisk, Dec. 22, 2015