By Tyler Larkworthy
Tyler Larkworthy is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania studying computer science and economics.
Driverless cars represent a technological innovation that is as fraught with potential legal and ethical issues as it is futuristic. Manufacturers and engineers working on driverless cars must meet numerous regulations to bring their products to market. But a pressing legal question remains: When a driverless car crashes, who is to blame?
A coherent regulatory framework for autonomous vehicles is lacking in the U.S. Only nine states and Washington, D.C. address driverless cars in any way in their laws, with most banning fully driverless vehicles. Only Florida allows truly driverless vehicles, that is, vehicles which move without an operator in the driver’s seat.  Florida law specifies, however, that a remote operator must still be able to take control of the vehicle in the event of an emergency. Forty-one states do not address autonomous vehicles in their legal codes, leaving the broad issue of the cars’ legality pending. 
Autonomous vehicles introduce a new level of complexity to assigning legal blame for car accidents. Because passengers do not actually operate autonomous vehicles, the question of who bears legal responsibility for accidents caused by autonomous vehicles is difficult to answer. In 2016, a man named Joshua Brown died after his Tesla Model S crashed, while in “autopilot” mode, into a semi-trailer truck that had veered onto his side of the road.  Brown’s family is suing Tesla, and the federal government has also launched an investigation into the safety of the autopilot system, which provides semi-autonomous control. Many believe that semi-autonomous systems are more dangerous than fully autonomous systems because human drivers tend to become complacent. Laws in the UK require that drivers stay attentive and focused while at the wheel, no matter the vehicle’s level of autonomy.  Thus, the blame falls on the operator of the vehicle instead of the software, and drivers are incentivized to keep their eyes on the road even as technology advances. Additionally, the UK’s Consumer Protection Act of 1987 provides legal recourse for consumers who purchase defective products by establishing specific grounds for litigating car manufacturers and software developers when autonomous vehicles crash. 
Most scholars agree that legal blame will likely shift from car drivers to car manufacturers and software developers, as producers can increasingly be faulted for defective maneuvers which cause accidents. Bryant Walker Smith, a professor at the University of South Carolina supports this view, arguing that, in future lawsuits, injured plaintiffs will have to prove that a human driver or a better automated system would have performed better to avoid an accident.  In fact, driverless cars may face an even higher standard in court, because an argument can be made that automated systems should perform better than humans and avert crashes in almost all possible cases. 
 Michael Reynolds and Jason Orr. "A State-By-State Guide to Driverless Car Regulations." Law 360. July 20, 2016. Accessed March 23, 2017. https://www.law360.com/articles/819698/a-state-by-state-guide-to-driverless-car-regulations
 Matt McFarland. "Who's Responsible when an Autonomous Car Crashes?" CNN. July 7, 2016. Accessed March 23, 2017. http://money.cnn.com/2016/07/07/technology/tesla-liability-risk/
 Joseph Savirimuthu. "Google Car Crash: Who's to Blame when a Car has an Accident?" The Conversation. March 3, 2016. Accessed March 23, 2017. http://theconversation.com/google-car-crash-whos-to-blame-when-a-driverless-car-has-an-accident-55664
 Ashley Halsey III. "When Driverless Cars Crash, Who Gets the Blame and Pays the Damages?" The Washington Post. February 25, 2017. Accessed March 23, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/trafficandcommuting/when-driverless-cars-crash-who-gets-the-blame-and-pays-the-damages/2017/02/25/3909d946-f97a-11e6-9845-576c69081518_story.html?utm_term=.fc3ee24e9e0c
Photo Credit: Flickr User smoothgroover22
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