The idea and implementation of autonomous (driverless) cars is getting much publicity lately, especially in California where many large technology companies such as Google have been experimenting with the technology. Bloomberg Business recently reported that the Michigan Transportation Research Institute did a report that found that driverless cars are involved in twice as many car accidents as regular cars.
Fortunately for the driverless car industry, those accidents have been relatively minor and the cars driven by humans have been at fault. The cause of these car accidents apparently often comes down to humans not being able to properly anticipate the actions of the autonomous vehicle. Humans are accustomed to driving amongst other human drivers, knowing what to expect and what not to expect. For example, humans will expect other drivers to drive above the speed limit on the freeway when there is open traffic, however driverless cars are programmed not to exceed the speed limit. Driverless cars may also start and stop differently to how a human driven car would do those things.
As the Bloomberg article points out, there are also certain ethical issues that must be programmed into the technology of driverless cars, including how far the car should go to avoid a collision. Should the car worry more about the safety of its occupants, or the general safety of the public? California has published some proposed rules for autonomous vehicles, including making the presence of a human behind the wheel mandatory. Google, which has developed an autonomous car model with no steering wheel or gas pedal, opposes California’s proposed rule.
We only foresee the use of autonomous vehicles to increase in the very near future. For this reason, it will be important to figure out the personal injury issues involved when they are inevitably involved in more serious crashes involving injuries or a wrongful death. Will the human driver be found at fault if the human anticipates the autonomous car to drive like a human, but does not? If a driverless car malfunctions and causes a California car accident, how far up the supply chain will the car accident injury liability extend? It is only a matter of time until the courts and/or legislatures are going to be faced with answering these difficult questions.