February 23, 2017, Trial News

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AAJ releases robot cars research report

Kate Halloran

photo of robot car dashboard

The American Association for Justice’s new research report, Driven to Safety: Robot Cars and the Future of Liability, discusses the benefits of a driverless future, as well as how the civil justice system will evolve in response—especially when autonomous technology injures or kills someone. The report explains how the courts have adjusted to technological advances in the past to develop a robust system for addressing problems and discusses the pros and cons of various liability approaches to robot cars.
 

The American Association for Justice’s new research report, Driven to Safety: Robot Cars and the Future of Liability, discusses the benefits of a driverless future, as well as how the civil justice system will evolve in response—especially when autonomous technology injures or kills someone. The report explains how the courts have adjusted to technological advances in the past to develop a robust system for addressing problems and discusses the pros and cons of various liability approaches to robot cars.

More than 6 million vehicle crashes occur in the United States each year, resulting in more than 35,000 deaths and 2 million injuries, according to the report. A recent rise in fatalities over the last few years has largely been attributed to human error, such as distracted driving and speeding. Driverless technology has the potential to significantly reduce those numbers. Existing limited automated technology such as electronic stability control has already led to fewer deaths, and some estimates predict that fully driverless cars will result in a 90 percent reduction in crashes.

But the introduction of robot cars raises many questions—from how to structure insurance to urban design to cybersecurity. It also raises questions about who will be responsible when the technology malfunctions and a person is injured or killed. What if the vehicle is not fully autonomous? Does a human driver have a responsibility to take over, and what is reasonable to expect people to do if they haven’t been paying attention because the car was in control? What if a specific technological component or line of code cannot be identified as the cause of the crash, making it impossible to assign fault to a particular party?

AAJ’s report delves into different approaches to a liability framework and the potential obstacles of each. No-fault insurance, for example, has been proposed to fill the compensation gap when product manufacturers rather than individual drivers are responsible for crashes. But the report explains that when states implemented no-fault auto insurance, it led to higher premiums, negligent drivers not being held responsible, and inadequate compensation for seriously injured people. Other proposed alternatives to liability include allowing the automotive industry to regulate itself—by setting its own standards and certifying that it has met those standards—and manufacturer immunity with a compensation fund for injured parties.

But the report points out that none of these liability alternatives sufficiently protects consumers, and that they are unlikely to adequately compensate someone who is injured by a robot car. Instead, the civil justice system is well-positioned to deal with these issues. Courts have confronted innovation and new theories of liability before and have been able to adapt—from automatic elevators to industrial robots. Strict liability is one framework that may work best in this scenario. The report says this would allow for injured people to be compensated, ensure that manufacturers are accountable, encourage consumer willingness to adopt robot cars because they know they will be protected, and encourage manufacturer innovation because the expectations will be clear.

“Every time a new auto technology has been introduced, the civil justice system has played a key role in ensuring its safety,” said AAJ President Julie Braman Kane. “Robot cars show tremendous promise for saving lives, but policymakers must ensure that when a robot car crashes, the injured, the families of those killed, or taxpayers don’t get stuck with the bill for the manufacturer’s failing.”

Washington, D.C., attorney Christopher Nace noted that trial lawyers must be on the forefront of protecting people who have been harmed and ensuring that companies are accountable. “Trial lawyers need to face this technology like they always have: as advocates for those harmed through no fault of their own. Our civil justice system has dealt with new and emerging technologies for generations. There is no reason the courts will not continue to do so. But trial lawyers need to be vigilant and aggressive in assuring that courts do not place higher burdens on victims just because the technology is new. In fact, the manufacturers and distributors of these driverless cars need to be held to a much higher standard, particularly as they test these vehicles throughout the country,” he said.

Read the full report at www.justice.org/robotcars.