Automation May Be Safer, But Also Increases Risks to Vehicle Manufacturers

One of the benefits behind automated vehicles, also known as self-driving vehicles, is a reduction of risks to those in the vehicle. There is a race among the largest automobile and technology companies to have fully automated cars. For example, Tesla cars have an autopilot system, Uber unveiled self-driving cars in Pittsburgh just last month and Ford believes it will be mass-producing self-driving cars with no steering wheels, brakes, or gas pedals within five years.

While there are safety benefits to automated vehicles, manufactures need to understand that there are also risks associated with their automated vehicles when an accident does occur. While the race to develop a fully automated vehicle is still in its infancy, and the direction of litigation following an accident in an automated vehicle is uncertain, it is clear that this is an area that may become a litigation focus in the near future. And, such litigation may have far ranging impacts across many areas of the law. Recently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wrote in a letter to Google that Google’s self-driving vehicles will not have a driver in the traditional sense. Instead, the car’s software would be the driver. As automated vehicles become more and more automated, liability for vehicle accidents may transfer from the traditional driver to the vehicles’ manufacturers.

Tesla is learning this right now. In May 2016, Joshua Brown died when his Tesla, while in autopilot mode, crashed into a tractor-trailer. While the cause of this accident is not yet known, the family of Mr. Brown retained a law firm with expertise in product defect litigation to investigate the accident. Certainly, vehicle manufacturers have long faced risks of product liability lawsuits. However, with the advent of automated vehicles, manufacturers may face evolving claims based in negligence (failing to design a safe product), design defect (a problem in the design of the software that operates the vehicle) and manufacturing defect (inadvertently shipping a vehicle with outdated software), just to name a few. Manufactures of automated vehicles will be wise to have a thorough understanding of these risks when designing and selling automobiles designed to make the roads safer, which may actually shift liability following an accident away from the vehicle’s driver and onto the manufacturer.

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