Driven to Safety: Robot Cars and the Future of Liability
Every year, more than 2 million people are injured and more than 30,000 killed in 6 million automobile crashes on U.S. roads. Widespread adoption of robot cars could have a revolutionary impact on these figures, potentially preventing 90 percent of crashes and saving thousands of lives every year.
The impact of such a robotic revolution would go beyond transportation. Robot cars may transform the automobile industry from one based on car ownership to one based on ride-share services. The auto insurance industry may wither, as the idea of personal car ownership slowly disappears. And without human drivers, or insurance policies to match, traditional approaches to liability when there are crashes may have to evolve.
Such uncertainty has led some commentators to propose schemes such as no-fault insurance, or various forms of manufacturer immunity. Most of these concepts have already been tried and found flawed. They also underestimate the ability of the courts to adapt to new technology and guide society’s beliefs on what is right and wrong. From the earliest passenger airplanes to robotic surgical systems a century later, litigation has served as the most consistent and powerful force in strengthening safety standards, revealing previously concealed defects and deterring manufacturers from cutting corners on safety for the goal of greater profits. The civil justice system is better placed than any other regulatory mechanism to ensure innovations develop in the safest manner possible.
If there is one proposal that might fit in an eventual driverless world it is strict liability. Under a strict liability regime, the claimant need only prove the tort occurred and that the defendant is responsible. Holding vehicle makers accountable for crashes will be the only way to guarantee that humans and governments do not end up footing the bill for collisions over which they have no control. A strict liability system would ensure manufacturers have an incentive to make their vehicles as safe as possible, while giving victims meaningful access to justice.