Uncertainty over who is liable for crashes of driverless cars

When an autonomous car gets into a crash, who is responsible? This question may just delay their mass market release:

“Automaker liability is likely to increase. Crashes are much more likely to be viewed as the fault of the car and the manufacturer,” Anderson said. “If you’re an automaker and you know you’re going to be sued [more frequently], you’re going to have reservations.… The legal liability test doesn’t take into account the long-run benefits.”

In other words, even though a technology is an overall boon to the greater good, its rare instances of failure—and subsequent lawsuits—won’t take that into account. That could slow the movement of driverless cars to the mass market if automakers are wary of legal battles…

As they grapple with what autonomous vehicles might mean for their industry, the legal frontier remains uncertain as well. One possible solution? A payout fund set up to compensate victims of driverless car accidents. That could be modeled similar to the Health and Human Services Department’s vaccine injury compensation fund, which takes a 75-cent tax from every purchased vaccine. The no-fault program helps those who have been hurt by vaccine-related incidents without exposing the medical community to legal battles and expensive damages payouts.

In the early stages, subsidies may be required to help driverless cars take hold in the market, according to Rand’s report on the technology’s adoption. Part of the money allotted for that could be set aside to help potential victims.

Sounds like there is still some work to do here and automakers are quite aware of these issues with recent events like the $1 billion settlement payout from Toyota. While it sounds like the technology is getting close, the legal and social issues might also prove difficult to nail down. But, the outstanding safety potential of driverless cars may force a quick resolution to the liability issue in order to save lives sooner.