The Legal Questions Behind Driverless Cars

May 17, 2016

If you have been paying attention to the news recently, then you will probably have seen a rise in the topic of driverless cars.

For evidence, look at some of the headlines that I have seen in the last week or so:

If you further notice a trend in these articles, you will realize that a lot of them are focused on Google.


Because Google is moving a lot closer to their dream of releasing driverless cars all over the place (they already have them driving around San Francisco). They aren’t the only ones, either.

Uber has plans on one day further automating their already very automated company by utilizing the more widespread usage of driverless cars.

There are a lot of issues and questions that come with this groundbreaking technology.

  • What will it do to jobs? After all, with driverless cars, a lot of professional drivers will be left high and dry. This is especially true since it is predicted that freight trucks will become driverless first.
  • How safe are these really? I mean, on the one hand, these computers won’t make many of the same mistakes that a human would make. However, on the other hand, Google maps is sometimes wrong. How will the car know that a one-way street its GPS system tells it to go down is actually one-way in the opposite direction?

There are many more where these come from as well. However, the one I want to focus on today is a legal issue.

When and if a driverless car makes a mistake, what are legal repercussions for that error?

For example, who gets the ticket? The passenger? The company?

The Technology Behind the Driverless Car

Before we get into a real discussion on the legal ramifications that could occur because of driverless cars, let’s talk a little bit about the actual use of these devices – just in case you have not been following their onslaught into the market as closely as I have.

Driverless cars are literally what they say they are – cars that operate without drivers.

It all circles around the fact that human error is the leading cause of car accidents. If you can eliminate human error, then you significantly reduce the chances of an accident ever occurring. In fact, Google’s cars have driven over half a million miles without causing a crash.

That being said, How Stuff Works – linked to above – came up with a step by step examination of just how driverless cars work.

According to the article – and common sense – we can see that driverless cars did not just appear overnight. Just like with most technology, they have evolved over time.

It started with anti-lock brakes and has moved on to cameras, alarms, and other systems designed to help you get rid of distractions that could cause you to crash. Becoming completely autonomous is just the next step in the overall process.

As the technology gets better, more and more companies are investing heavily in it. The ultimate goal would be to have this tech available for private use. However, at this point, their use is only permitted for testing purposes and only then in certain places – California being one.

Legal Problems That Have Already Arisen With the Advent of Driverless Cars

One of the biggest problems that has already become evident with these cars is the fact that it isn’t yet widespread enough. If we ever reach a time where all cars are autonomous, then we might cut down the risks significantly.

However, in the meantime, these humanless cars have to operate in a world filled with many, many more human-operated vehicles. In some ways, this leads to problems because the driverless car will freeze when trying to predict the human, who might be breaking a law or driving in a manner that is not fully compliant, in the car next to it.

This has happened before – most significantly at four-way stops where it cannot seem to figure out when it is its turn to go.

From a legal standpoint, though, this can cause accidents, as was the case when a Google car slowed down to let someone walk through a crosswalk, as it is legally supposed to do, but was rear-ended by a human-operated car behind it.

From a liability standpoint, the human driver was clearly at fault in this story, but when a wreck of this nature occurs, how will it affect insurance policies, since driverless cars are more expensive?

Legal Problems That Could Occur With the Rise of Driverless Cars

Of course, as this technology expands past its current locations, more and more legal issues will arise. Just off the top of my head, I think of all the following:

  • How do you determine who is to blame with a he-said-she-said system, when one of the systems has no he or she? Of course there are cameras, which in some situations are more accurate than witness testimonies, but will their angles be comprehensive enough to catch everything?
  • While most (think around 90%) car accidents are caused by human error, there is still the rest of those accidents that aren’t. What happens when the brake system fails or some other malfunction occurs?
  • When and if an accident occurs and someone ends up dead, will lawsuits and criminal actions occur because of it?

I am sure that between us, we could think of a whole lot more to go onto this list.

In fact, some experts predict that the issues surrounding potential liability on this topic could be one of the very factors that slows down its projection.

This means that until we have more answers on how the law will handle these situations, it will be a lot harder for companies to begin to utilize and implement these services on a wider margin.

Of course, on the other hand, we have some experts who argue that the laws already in place across the country already take care of these issues – but more on that in the next section.

The biggest problem I see with this trend is that some things will always be unforeseen until it is actually seen – hindsight is 20/20 after all. So until we see wider use of this technology, we might not have the knowledge needed to fully address and prepare for their use.

This is especially true because the people making the laws are not necessarily the ones that are knowledgeable about the technology. This means that the real answer to what the law is surrounding driverless cars is yet to be determined.

However, that being said, there are plenty of laws out there that are attempting to address these issues.

What Is the Law on This Subject?

As I said, there are some laws already on the book that will address liability issues in these situations.

For example, as of now, fully automated cars are only allowed in limited states, California and Washington D.C. being two prominent examples. Even within those states, the capability is only offered for testing purposes and this means its usage is very limited.

Outside of these laws, though, even if we found out today that the cars were open to wide use across the country, the cars would still be regulated. That is because the normal rules of the road would still apply.

Experts guess that if a car were to receive a ticket – let’s say for parking in a no-park zone because it didn’t recognize a sign that had just been put up designating the spot as such – then the car owner, most likely being the company, would be liable.

Similarly, lawsuits in these situation might actually become easier because of the amount of data received from the cars’ cameras. On the other hand, criminal cases could become harder because there was a lack of mens rea – the required level of intention or knowledge when committing the wrongful act.

Finally, I should note that, while it is certainly not legally binding, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did come up with some suggested guidelines for how to handle these vehicles.



Final Thoughts

You will probably hear more and more about driverless cars over the next few months and years. It is real, and it is coming. However, this is not just a cool story to talk about.

With more and more company’s using the services of these driverless cars, the legal questions surrounding this topic will grow with it.

If you ever plan on investing in this tech for your company, then you want to make sure you stay afloat of all the potential landmines that surround it.

Technology innovations are incredible, but in order to use them with minimal liability, you need to know the law surrounding its use. Taking in the potential legal costs – and the likelihood of those costs occurring – lets you make informed decisions at the purchase point, as well as lets you budget for their occurrence.

In truth, you probably won’t find a driverless car on your company payroll for a while. However, as the Google’s and Apple’s of the world start purchasing them for themselves, they will eventually become more mainstream.

When this happens, they will likely start to become more of the norm than the exception. So at some point, if you use drivers at all, you might have to start thinking of this tech, and with this thought comes the legal considerations.

If you do want to know more about your potential legal pitfalls, then make sure you talk to an employment lawyer.


Ashley Shaw is an experienced Legal Writer with years of experience. After receiving her JD, she worked for years in a corporate environment writing on business and employment law topics

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