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Products Liability And Driverless Cars: Issues And Guiding Principles For Legislation

Publication Date: 
April 24, 2014
Source: 
Brookings
Author: 
John Villasenor

Brookings quotes Professor Bryant Walker Smith on the liablity issues that come with the arrival of driverless cars. 

As driverless cars—or more formally, autonomous vehicles—continue to attract growing interest and investment, the associated liability issues are also getting increased attention. Often, this attention comes in the form of suggestions that liability concerns will slow or even completely prevent consumer access to advanced autonomous vehicle technology.

That would be a mistake. While liability will always be important with respect to motor vehicle operation, automation will dramatically increase safety on the highways by reducing both the number and severity of accidents. To some extent, it already has. For example, electronic stability control systems, which help drivers maintain control on turns and slippery surfaces by automatically selecting which wheels to use for braking, have saved thousands of lives.1 And, they have done so without confronting the courts with insurmountable questions regarding liability.

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To state the obvious, the above description is not intended to be a complete treatment of products liability law in relation to autonomous vehicles. There is a growing body of legal scholarship that addresses this topic in much more depth, including law review articles from Ryan Calo, Kyle Colonna, Sophia H. Duffy and Jamie Patrick Hopkins, Andrew Garza, Kyle Graham, Gary Marchant and Rachel Lindor, Bryant Walker Smith, and others. In addition, researchers at the RAND Corporation addressed autonomous vehicle liability in reports published in 2009 and 2014.

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Some of the legal scholarship cited above predicts a trend towards increased manufacturer liability with increased use of automation. Bryant Walker Smith writes that “commercial sellers’ growing information about, access to, and control over their products, product users, and product uses could significantly expand their point-of-sale and post-sale obligations toward people endangered by these products.”60 Gary Marchant and Rachel Lindor believe that while autonomous vehicles “will increase the safety of vehicle travel by reducing vehicle collisions,” they will nonetheless “increase the liability exposure of vehicle manufacturers. Autonomous vehicles will shift the responsibility for avoiding accidents from the driver to the vehicle manufacturer.”