Business Law

Self-driving Cars: Science Fiction Concept, or Business Game Changer

A device that sounds more like something you would see in a science fiction movie may be coming to our lives in the next several years, and it could change the way businesses and individuals consider liability issues.

Those devices are known by several names: self-driving cars, driverless cars, and autonomous cars. By any name, the introduction of these vehicles as transportation options would pose an assortment of questions to the motor vehicle status quo, the least significant of which is probably my question of “Will my self-driving car be able to aimlessly drive through a neighborhood for a restaurant when Dinner Options A and B are both closed or really busy?”

For the purposes of this blog, I am going to focus on legal issues, such as liability, that could arise from this emerging technology.

Regulatory Issues

This September, the United States Department of Transportation put forth what Secretary Anthony R. Foxx has called “the first federal policy on automated vehicles.” Secretary Foxx further called this policy “[t]he most comprehensive national, automated vehicle policy that the world has ever seen.” This 116 page policy, available here, was broken down into a few bullet points by Hope Reese in an article found at, a leading Information Technology blog:

1) Safety. The DOT guidelines include a “15 Point Safety Assessment” for manufacturers, developers, and other organizations for the safe design, development, testing and deployment of automated vehicles.

2) Model State Policy. This outlines differences between federal and state “responsibilities for regulation of highly automated vehicles,” giving recommendations for states, in terms of policy, “with a goal of generating a consistent national framework for the testing and deployment of highly automated vehicles.”

3) NHTSA’s current regulatory tools. The DOT guidelines outline current rules “for testing of nontraditional vehicle designs in a more timely fashion,” according to the press release. “We recognize that this is a dynamic environment, and want to be flexible,” Secretary Foxx said. “The rulemaking process can take quite some time. We want to set a context where everybody knows the rules of the road.”

4) Modern regulatory tools. This section looks at tools policymakers can use “in the future to aid the safe and efficient deployment of new lifesaving techniques.”

The Current Landscape

While reports generally concede that major auto manufacturers and tech companies will not unveil their offerings in the self-driving car category for a few more years, there appears to be one exception. In September, Uber began testing a self-driving fleet of cars in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. These vehicles are equipped with cameras and GPS units mounted on the roofs, which allow the vehicles to collect mapping data on plants and trees, the conditions of sidewalks, and traffic markings for nearly every street. These efforts include Uber opening a center in Pittsburgh dedicated to autonomous vehicles called the Advanced Technology Center. Uber currently has 500 employees at this center and plans to eventually have 1,000 people there. (See here)

Liability Issues

From an attorney’s perspective, the advent of this new technology triggers the following question: “How will this affect auto insurance and liability issues?” In the current system, we must obtain auto insurance to protect against damages resulting from driver negligence. When two or more cars collide, responsibility is assigned. Occasionally a part of the car is defective, which is a cause for the accident, but typically we are dealing with damages resulting from a negligent human driving on the road.

This paradigm could change with driverless cars. In a fully automated car, with no required human involvement in the driving process, what is the cause of an accident? If the driverless car caused the accident, does this become a product liability case, which would put the costs of defense on the manufacturer? On the other hand, to avoid shaking up the system, will auto insurance companies still be expected to cover a loss, even if there isn’t a human causing this accident?

Another issue to consider is cybersecurity. If computers become drivers of vehicles, manufacturers will have to remain vigilant against cyberattacks. Businesses carry cybersecurity insurance. Will that become a risk that must be insured with regard to vehicles?

In an article at TechRepublic, Jerry Albright of KPMG sees this as a “call to action” to insurance companies to “completely reevaluate their business strategy.” He further states that “every core component of doing insurance will change.” He appears to base these thoughts on the idea that replacing humans behind the wheel with computers should lead to safer roads.

From my perspective, I don’t see driverless cars as an immediate end to humans controlling their vehicles. Driverless cars will likely begin as a high-end niche market, and will not become a legitimate vehicle option for the average consumer for quite some time. Exceptions to this could involve operations like Uber or delivery services.

I don’t think anyone knows what the future holds for automated cars, but my advice on many issues is this: the best practice is to stay out in front of the issue. That allows an organization to be informed and better manage the risks associated with it when they occur. While immediate reaction isn’t always necessary, refusing to consider potential developments in the field can also prove to be dangerous.

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