Driverless Cars Raise Big Legal & Insurance Issues

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Driverless cars have the potential to make roads safer and save lives, according to the companies pursuing this cutting-edge technology. But when there’s no one at the wheel, big legal questions arise.

When a driverless can causes a crash, who is legally liable?

The Washington Post called that the “big question about driverless cars no one seems able to answer.”

At the Deuterman Law Group we’ve been watching this emerging market with particular interest as to how liability legislation will develop.

Google created a huge buzz when it first introduced the concept of driverless cars. More than 33,000 people are killed on the road every year, and 94 percent of those accidents are due to some type of human error, Chris Urmson, the technical director of Google’s self-driving car project told NPR.

“The good news is we can build software and hardware that can see the road and pay attention all the time and react more quickly and keep people safe on the road,” he said.

Now more and more companies are investing in this technology. Right now these vehicles are primarily in the testing phase in a very few cities, but it appears this may be the future of transportation.

In February, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration acknowledged that the software, and not the human passenger, is legally the driver in these new types of cars.

What does this mean for liability and insurance coverage for these types of vehicles when they become available for purchase?

There are no clear answer yet.

Automakers could be held liable when driverless cars fail and cause crashes.

“This is largely a matter of product liability, several auto and insurance analysts said, not personal insurance — though as a 2014 study from the Brookings Institution suggests, determining where one type of coverage ends and the other begins will be tricky,” the Washington Post reported. “Basically, victims of a collision could (directly or indirectly through their own insurers) try to seek damages from a driverless-car maker for manufacturing a vehicle that didn’t operate as it was supposed to.”

So what happens if you buy a driverless car? Would your car insurance policy or rate change? Possibly, but no one really knows yet what these policies would look like or how much they would cost.

These cars will have different levels of automation, so insurers likely won’t have a standard policy that applies to all driverless cars. And while the federal government has weighed in on these vehicles, many states have not. “And it’s their laws that really matter to insurance companies,” the Washington Post reported, based on an interview with Wayne McOwen, executive director of the District of Columbia Insurance Federation.”That’s because it’s the states that ultimately issue the drivers’ licenses that insurers use to evaluate risk.”

Indeed, there’s a lot to ponder about driverless cars. Will they make our roads safer? Who should be allowed to operate them? How should these types of vehicles be insured? Who should legally responsible when these cars are involved in crashes?

What do you think?

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