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Spangenberg, Shibley & Liber, LLP | Oct 28, 2014

"Was your car even paying attention?"

So during a long drive back from a meeting earlier this week Stuart Scott and I were discussing the seemingly rapid progress Google is making with driverless cars in California. Notwithstanding a recent hitch in their planned testing program in which the state required them to equip the test vehicles with a steering wheel and pedals for “emergencies” in order to test of public roads (http://blogs.wsj.com/law/2014/08/21/a-car-without-a-steering-wheel-or-pedals-not-so-fast-california-says/), the program continues to go ahead full bore. As Plaintiff’s attorneys, the first question that comes to mind is that of safety – will these cars be safer or less safe than traditional vehicles? Who will bear the cost of injuries and other losses when these cars cause accidents? Will they be insured in the traditional sense by the owner of each vehicle? Will the manufacturer of the car be liable for poor “decision making” resultant from the car’s programing? Who is responsible for network errors that prevent the cars from getting the information they need to make decisions? Does the entire project require an entirely new legal schema, likely by way of federal preemption of state tort law?

These very issues were discussed in a recent Brooking Institute paper (http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2014/04/products-liability-driverless-cars-villasenor) that notes projections of over 50 million self-driving cars on the road by 2035 and exclusively self-driving cars on the road by 2050. The author of that paper ultimately concludes that wholesale federal preemption of the space is unnecessary and that our current legal framework – both state negligence law and strict liability law for products liability –is adequately flexible to adapt to the future of driverless cars. If true, it will be fascinating to watch not just how the technology develops, but how society and the legal system specifically adapts to the reality of driverless cars.

Photo: The Guardian, Tom Scott "Are you feeling lucky? Why Googles driverless cars show its technology heft" http://www.theguardian.com/technology/blog/2010/oct/09/google-driverless...