Who Gets Sued When Your Robot Car Crashes?

Autonomous vehicles will save thousands of lives. But what about the ones they take?

Robot cars will save lots of lives, but they'll also open up some tricky liability issues? (National Journal)

You are a terrible driver.

By human standards, you might be pretty good, but you'll never be able to match the reaction time, 360-degree monitoring, and prescient awareness autonomous vehicles will soon provide.

By almost any estimate, taking the wheel out of the hands of human drivers — when the technology is ready — will save thousands of lives. "Human beings just aren't that great as drivers," said Rand's James Anderson. Driverless cars "could save billions of dollars and thousands of lives."

But what happens when something goes wrong? Robot cars may prevent thousands of accidents, but eventually, inevitably, there will be a crash.

"Who's responsible if the car crashes?" Audi's Brad Stertz said earlier this year. "That's going to be an issue."

It's tough to argue the passenger (who may well be the victim) should be held responsible if a car controlled by a computer runs itself off the road. But should automakers face long, expensive lawsuits when life-saving technology suffers a rare glitch?

"Automaker liability is likely to increase. Crashes are much more likely to be viewed as the fault of the car and the manufacturer," Anderson said. "If you're an automaker and you know you're going to be sued [more frequently], you're going to have reservations."¦ The legal liability test doesn't take into account the long-run benefits."

In other words, even though a technology is an overall boon to the greater good, its rare instances of failure — and subsequent lawsuits — won't take that into account. That could slow the movement of driverless cars to the mass market if automakers are wary of legal battles.

"The auto insurers are thinking a lot about this," Anderson said. Insurers, as well as body shops and trauma centers, are among the members of the "crash economy" that will be disrupted when robot cars rule the road.

As they grapple with what autonomous vehicles might mean for their industry, the legal frontier remains uncertain as well. One possible solution? A payout fund set up to compensate victims of driverless car accidents. That could be modeled similar to the Health and Human Services Department's vaccine injury compensation fund, which takes a 75-cent tax from every purchased vaccine. The no-fault program helps those who have been hurt by vaccine-related incidents without exposing the medical community to legal battles and expensive damages payouts.

In the early stages, subsidies may be required to help driverless cars take hold in the market, according to Rand's report on the technology's adoption. Part of the money allotted for that could be set aside to help potential victims.

"The overall crash costs are going to go down," Anderson said. "How do you make sure that the amount that's saved goes in such a way to encourage efficient adoption? "¦ One of the key issues is to make sure that the winners compensate the losers. Clearly there's going to be a lot of winners. Automakers may be in the loser category if they face increasing liability suits. Some form of straightening that out might make sense."

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