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Self-driving cars - are there liability issues?

Self-driving cars – are there liability issues? As a personal injury lawyer in Columbus, Ohio, the recipient of a SMART transportation grant and likely the future home of self-driving cars, we weigh in on this issue.

While the option to get in your vehicle and have a computer drive you where you need to go is still in the future, that hasn’t stopped people from discussing a pressing issue: Who is liable if a self-driving car gets into a collision?

In February, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration signed off on allowing Google to make cars without features like a brake pedal, a steering wheel and an accelerator – in essence, a car that had no need for a human driver.

Google has stated that self-driving cars are much safer than cars driven by humans.

But cars can and do crash, due to factors like weather. So if you aren’t driving your car and it crashes – injuring or killing someone — does a computer need a driver’s license? Can software go to jail?

The issue of liability and self-driving cars is a big unknown. While these vehicles are likely years away from hitting showrooms, it is something many are discussing.

Right now, in a nutshell, if you get into a crash, you are liable for any damages. That’s why you have insurance. But in the case of a self-driving car, you wouldn’t actually be in control of the vehicle so would you be blameless? Some experts have wondered if auto manufacturers would be liable for crashes.

In a 2014 study, the Brookings Institute examined these issues. One key piece is: Self-driving cars would be much less likely to crash because you take away human error (factors like falling asleep, being distracted or speeding) and crashes are likely to go down.

However, self-driving cars can fail. A computer system could go down or there could be a bug or a glitch that causes a crash. It’s called product liability and people sue – and win – for product failures every day, according to the Brookings Institute study.

Another issue is car insurance. Would you need it with a self-driving car that you could never take control of? This is another interesting possible change and no one really knows how it would shake out. The laws today let each state decide.

There are other intangibles. If your self-driving car had no brakes, steering wheel or accelerator, how do you take control should you see a crash coming? What if your self-driving car does have those features? Some car manufacturers, like Tesla, are keeping these features in their cars with automation for now – meaning the driver is still responsible for what happens behind the wheel.

Schottenstein Law Offices

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