Self-Driving Cars: Legal Issues Ahead

06 January 2016 Technology Transactions Today Blog

Companies including Apple, Google, Tesla, Toyota and Uber are all developing and testing self-driving car technology. Toyota announced in November that it would spend $1 billion over the next five years on research centers related to autonomous vehicles at both MIT and Stanford. Apple, Google, Tesla and Uber have also committed to substantial research initiatives focusing on the testing and developing of autonomous vehicles. BMW, Audi and Daimler recently purchased Nokia’s map business, including intellectual property focused on self-driving cars.

As the technology of self-driving cars has developed, states have adopted laws to support them. California, Florida, Massachusetts, Nevada, Virginia, and Washington D.C. have already legalized autonomous vehicles.

As self-driving cars become more and more of a reality, a host of legal quandaries will need to be resolved, including the following.

Who will regulate self-driving cars?

Historically, states regulate drivers and the federal government regulates vehicles. But what happens when the vehicle is the driver? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said that issues such as licensing, driver training, and operation of the vehicles are best left to the states. Indeed, states that have legalized the operation of autonomous vehicles have deferred to their motor vehicle departments to address questions of how to regulate such issues. These departments will face questions such as: Will drivers of autonomous cars need extra training or licensing? How will self-driving cars be registered and inspected?

Who will be responsible for accidents?

When self-driving cars hit the road, a new area of personal injury law will arrive. If a self-driving car causes a collision, who will be sued? The driver or the manufacturer? Or both? What will it mean for a driver of a self-driving car to be negligent? And what standards will manufacturers be held to in terms of safe design? For example: What form will the transition from manual to auto-pilot take? Will it be possible to speed?

Self-driving cars will mark a new age in modern transportation. And as the technology reaches the public, changes to laws and legal standards will be in the headlights.

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