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Autonomous Vehicles: Changing the Legal Landscape


When talking about the costs associated with that most American form of transportation, driving an automobile, we most often think of the price of gasoline, the cost of auto insurance, and of course, the cost of owning and maintaining the vehicle itself. But there are other costs arising from America's great love affair with the Model T and its descendants. First and foremost, six million car accidents are reported annually in the U.S., with 33,000 fatalities and two million injuries. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 94% of these accidents are caused by driver error, and that the collective price tag for the accidents and injuries is $836 billion.

In addition to those tangible costs, there are high intangible costs associated with America's favorite mode of transportation. Most of us spend 42 hours--the equivalent of a work week or a week of vacation--stuck in traffic; for those of us in highly congested areas like New York City, Los Angeles, or D.C., the amount of time is double that. The loss of a week or two weeks of time every year is a high cost indeed.


A study by Eno Center for Transportation found that converting just 10% of U.S. vehicles to self-driving cars would reduce the number of accidents every year by 211,000, saving 1,100 lives and decreasing associated costs by $25.5 billion. If self-driving cars become 100% of the automotive force on American roads, the annual savings would be 1.3 trillion (according to a Morgan Stanley analysis); with $158 billion in fuel costs savings, $507 billion in productivity increases; and $488 billion in accident-related savings.

Some of this savings will be offset by the loss of jobs in certain industries. With such a drastic reduction in car accidents, the auto insurance industry will shrink to a fraction of its current size, causing huge job losses in a $200 billion dollar employer. Job losses will occur in other sectors, too, such as taxi services, ride sharing services, parking services, truck driving and auto body shops.


Most experts and analysts agree, however, that the adoption of autonomous vehicles will provide a net benefit for society despite the negative effect it will have on certain areas of the economy. But experts and analysts are not so sure of the impact of autonomous vehicles on the laws that historically have been associated with cars. Take, for example, regulating autonomous vehicles; traditionally, drivers are regulated (trained, licensed) by the states, and vehicles are regulated by the federal government. But what happens when the driver and the vehicle are the same? Who regulates the inspection, licensing, registration, etc. of an autonomous car?

One of the most vexing legal questions surrounding autonomous cars has always been how to determine fault in an accident: would the manufacturer be responsible--something gone wrong with the coding or programming of the vehicle? Was the accident due to a defective part or process, once again placing blame on the manufacturer? Personal injury law and insurance coverage may change to incorporate concepts of product liability, since fault may be due to a defect in design or manufacturing, rather than due to a driver's negligence. In a move that seems to acknowledge the inevitable shift away from traditional tort concepts, the NHTSA announced in February 2016 that computers controlling a vehicle should be legally defined as "drivers."

Of course, not all accidents will be the result of a defect or malfunction. An emergency situation will arise on the road, severe weather will wreak havoc, or some other unforeseen and unprogrammed-for event will occur; will the human being in the vehicle be able to over-ride the autonomous programming to deal with these but then be forced to assume liability if things go badly?

Although self-driving cars may seem like the stuff of science fiction, they are actually already here--being manufactured and road-tested. So buckle your seat belts; as Mary Barra, the CEO of GM has said, there will be more changes in the automotive industry in the next 5 years than there have been in the last 50.


If you or someone you know has been injured in an automobile accident, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free consultation regarding your legal rights.

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