The Legal Ramifications of Self-Driving Cars
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The Legal Ramifications of Self-Driving Cars

Tuesday, March 13, 2018By Nina Shapirshteyn

Driverless cars are no longer relegated to science fiction; they are the future of transportation technology. Congress has recognized the importance of establishing standards for driverless cars and passed a bipartisan bill in 2017. This will be the first set of federal rules to regulate the driverless car industry. In a statement to Congress, Commerce Chairman Greg Walden praised driverless cars for their potential for making “America’s roads safer, creating new economic opportunities, and helping seniors and those with disabilities live more independently.” Lawmakers are eager to get driverless cars on the road in light of the increasing number of traffic deaths in the United States, according to statistics. Some experts estimate that self-driving cars could reduce traffic-related deaths by an astounding 90 percent because they eliminate the cause of most accidents- human error.

But along with the promises of safer roads, more flexibility, and a healthier environment, self-driving cars raise a host of legal issues that are unprecedented in the transportation sector. One concern is the pace of regulation and technological advancement. The government is prepared to set forth guidelines for self-driving cars, but also expects the industry to self-regulate. Legal standards are striving to keep up with technology, which might result in laws being honed only after safety issues arise.

Experts in the field of self-driving caution that driverless cars need to make real-world decisions when sudden situations occur. The consequences of making the wrong decision in an emergency situation are grave. Recent accidents involving Tesla and Google cars demonstrate this point. And when an accident does occur, who is responsible? This may require modifying the definition of “driver” for both self-driving and autonomous cars. Liability for car owners and manufacturers, as well as insurance requirements, will need to be addressed. Most experts agree that liability will be shifted from drivers to manufacturers to some degree. States will ultimately have the responsibility to establish these laws and decide how to allocate liability among owners, operators, and manufacturers.

Another concern for driverless cars is installing adequate protections to prevent unauthorized use of the car. Hacking is regarded as a criminal activity in many jurisdictions. The law must address the car manufacturer’s legal responsibility for failing to equip cars with necessary safeguards.  

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