Automobile safety has been improving slowly but steadily for decades. Cars are now safer, more reliable and more crashworthy than ever before. But there is still one major accident risk that has yet to be mitigated: human error. As long as human beings are behind the wheel, the rate of injurious and fatal car accidents can only fall so far.
This is one reason why so many Americans are excited about the possibility of fully autonomous (self-driving) cars. It is widely believed that if the technology works reliably, self-driving vehicles could greatly reduce accidents, reduce carbon pollution and even eliminate rush-hour congestion. But what happens if the technology isn’t reliable, or even safe?
The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a unanimous measure that could speed the progress of adopting self-driving vehicles. In addition to giving power to federal regulators, the measure prohibits states from passing legislation to block the use of autonomous vehicles. This means that Connecticut citizens and lawmakers could not choose for themselves whether or not to allow self-driving cars on roads and highways within the state.
It’s impossible to know for sure how self-driving cars will change transportation in the U.S. until or unless they are put into widespread use. But in the meantime, we need to ask and answer some very important questions about responsibility and liability.
Currently, liability in a car accident is not always easy to determine, but the principles are easy to understand. If the crash was caused by one driver’s negligence or illegal actions behind the wheel, that driver can be held liable. If the accident was caused by a vehicle design or manufacturing flaw, the automaker could be held liable.
With no humans in charge, cars will drive themselves based on the software installed in them. If and when crashes occur, will the software developers (and automakers by extension) be held liable? Will different automakers use their own operating software, and will that software be proprietary? If two cars collide and each car has different software, how will we determine which vehicle was at fault?
To be sure, the benefits of self-driving cars may greatly outweigh the risks. But accidents and injuries will not go away completely. And in our rush to use this technology, we must do all we can to safeguard lives and to ensure that automakers are held to account for any problems that arise.
For now, human drivers are still in control. If you or a loved one has been seriously injured by another driver’s negligence, please contact an experienced personal injury attorney.