Will Autonomous Vehicles Mean Fewer Lawsuits?

23 June 2016 Dashboard Insights Blog
Author(s): Jeffrey A. Soble

Full disclosure # 1: I, the author of this blog post, am a trial lawyer. Full disclosure # 2: The law firm that allows the publication of this blog post has many, many, many more trial lawyers. Without disputes that could go to trial, we all need to find more work.

Of course, this also means that we like to argue. Thankfully, we can now argue about whether autonomous vehicles will lead to a large wave of lawsuits. The fear of a crushing legal liability underpins a proposal published on Slateto limit liability in some fashion to avoid the chilling effect [of] excessive litigation” once everyone drives autonomous vehicles. What that article misses is that the result of autonomous vehicles being ubiquitous will almost certainly be fewer lawsuits, which are also much simpler because they will not involve a defense of “driver error.”

Let’s start with the basic statistics from the article: “if we achieved 90 percent adoption, the group estimates almost 22,000 lives would be saved yearly, and society would garner a staggering $350 billion in cost savings.” That is all through a drastically reduced number of accidents. As the article notes, “It doesn’t seem outlandish to predict that the majority of these tragedies could be avoided if autonomous systems took over the job of driving for us.” In fact, “94 percent of all those accidents are caused by human error.” A 94 percent reduction in the number of accidents will almost certainly have a corresponding reduction in the number of lawsuits.

Moreover, if human error is not the cause of the accidents, some other error must be. As the Dashboard wrote months ago:

The same will be true when a driver is in autonomous mode. You think the car literally drives itself magically? No. A combination of hardware, software and/or mechanical connections drive the car. Algorithms that most of us can barely comprehend, let alone understand or explain, are going to make the decisions on how the autonomous vehicle reacts in a given situation. If that algorithm makes a decision that causes an accident, or if it works in a manner inconsistent with an applicable standard of care (most likely debated through expert testimony), then there could be liability.

So, now we have fewer overall lawsuits. Of those fewer lawsuits, almost none are the result of human error. This means that the only lawsuits left – the only possible disputes – are between those who designed/manufactured the hardware, software and/or mechanical connections in the car. The driver and passengers are almost incapable of error/fault in an autonomous vehicle (there will surely be exceptions).

The fact of the matter is that lawsuits are already coming over who designed/manufactured the hardware, software and/or mechanical connections in the car. The number of software related recalls has tripled in the past 4 years. This trend line will not go down as more and more software finds its way into a vehicle to actually drive the autonomous vehicle.

Fewer accidents will mean fewer lawsuits. Absent a spike in lawsuits, there will be no crushing cost of defending against product liability claims. In fact, anyone who makes a living litigating disputes arising out of vehicle accidents likely needs to find a new area of expertise once autonomous vehicles dominate the roadways.

This blog is made available by Foley & Lardner LLP (“Foley” or “the Firm”) for informational purposes only. It is not meant to convey the Firm’s legal position on behalf of any client, nor is it intended to convey specific legal advice. Any opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Foley & Lardner LLP, its partners, or its clients. Accordingly, do not act upon this information without seeking counsel from a licensed attorney. This blog is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. Communicating with Foley through this website by email, blog post, or otherwise, does not create an attorney-client relationship for any legal matter. Therefore, any communication or material you transmit to Foley through this blog, whether by email, blog post or any other manner, will not be treated as confidential or proprietary. The information on this blog is published “AS IS” and is not guaranteed to be complete, accurate, and or up-to-date. Foley makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the operation or content of the site. Foley expressly disclaims all other guarantees, warranties, conditions and representations of any kind, either express or implied, whether arising under any statute, law, commercial use or otherwise, including implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Foley or any of its partners, officers, employees, agents or affiliates be liable, directly or indirectly, under any theory of law (contract, tort, negligence or otherwise), to you or anyone else, for any claims, losses or damages, direct, indirect special, incidental, punitive or consequential, resulting from or occasioned by the creation, use of or reliance on this site (including information and other content) or any third party websites or the information, resources or material accessed through any such websites. In some jurisdictions, the contents of this blog may be considered Attorney Advertising. If applicable, please note that prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. Photographs are for dramatization purposes only and may include models. Likenesses do not necessarily imply current client, partnership or employee status.

Related Services


Foley Automotive Report
06 December 2022
Dashboard Insights
Episode 3: The Future Powered By Hyperscale Cloud Computing with David Sloan of Microsoft
06 December 2022
Innovative Technology Insights
2023 M&A Outlook
05 December 2022
Foley Ignite
COVID-related Form I-9 Remote Verification Flexibilities Extended Through July 31, 2023
05 December 2022
Labor & Employment Law Perspectives
What You Should Know About Payor/Provider Convergence
25-26 January 2023
Los Angeles, CA
ATA EDGE2022 Policy Conference | American Telemedicine Association
7-9 December 2022
Washington, D.C.
CLE Weeks
5-16 December 2022
Milwaukee, WI
Foley Sponsors Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year® Program
1 December 2021 - 30 November 2022
Michigan and Northwest Ohio Region