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Driverless Vehicles Could Put the Brakes on Accident-related Lawsuits

A veteran transportation attorney outlines the cascading legal effects of autonomous vehicles.
May 25, 2017

​SAN FRANCISCO – For companies with drivers on the payroll, the shift to fully autonomous vehicles could usher in massive reductions in potential liability, said LeClairRyan attorney Peter Hart in a May 19 column for legal news website Law360.com.

“After all, driver error is the leading cause of accidents on U.S. roadways,” wrote Hart, senior counsel in the national law firm’s San Francisco office and co-leader of its transportation industry team. “When perfected forms of autonomous driving technology replace error-prone human drivers, many are betting that businesses such as trucking firms, delivery services and shuttle operators will face dramatically fewer legal settlements and court battles triggered by vehicular accidents.”

In the column, Hart noted that technological progress is already headed in this direction. He cited the increasing sophistication of the specialized Electronic Control Modules (ECMs) used in commercial trucking. “These devices are the trucking industry’s version of the ‘black box’ data-collectors that play such key roles in the reconstruction of aviation accidents,” Hart wrote. “Thanks to the wealth of post-event information that is now available from ECMs, it is easier to scientifically reconstruct traffic accidents. The devices are getting more sophisticated all the time.”

In the column, Hart pointed to the remarkable safety records of autonomous vehicles road-tested by the likes of Waymo and Uber. Most of the accidents thus far have been the result of humans crashing into driverless cars or otherwise causing accidents with them, not the other way around. 

This is not to suggest, however, that all liability risk will vanish. Today, many lawsuits (including class actions) target manufacturers of conventional cars and trucks for mechanical failures such as faulty steering wheels, braking systems or accelerators. It is possible that autonomous vehicles, once introduced onto American roads in sufficient numbers, could cause accidents as manufacturers strive to discover and eliminate the remaining bugs in these systems.

Thus, insurance and liability burdens could tilt away from companies that once employed human drivers and toward manufacturers of autonomous vehicles. “It would be prudent for risk-managers, attorneys, C-suite executives and other professionals to start educating themselves on the various ways in which autonomous vehicles could affect what they do.”