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The benefits of driverless cars are numerous for society. Most car accidents are caused by human error and reliance on sensor and computer technology can potentially eliminate that risk on the roads. Assuming that a driverless car will be able to operate independently on autopilot by GPS coordinates, it may eliminate a family’s need for a second car. Driverless cars bring comfort and efficiency because while the car handles the travel, you are free to relax, read, chat on your phone, get work done, watch a movie, etc. People who are unable to drive such as the elderly or the handicapped may now have the freedom to travel through driverless cars.

However, those benefits are also countered with potential criticisms as well. Studies show that driverless cars may actually increase traffic congestion. Also, if sci-fi movies have taught us anything, anything with a computer can also be hacked. Driverless systems are not immune to ingenious computer experts and someone who is able to access a driverless system remotely can do substantial harm on the roads or even redirect routes completely.

Yet another potential issue that may be overlooked is whether or not Australian law is prepared to account for this new technology. Our government must be ready to evolve our laws to accommodate a slew of new legal issues and our judiciary will be tasked with the difficulty of having to interpret these new rules with little or no precedent.

Some of our staff had a little coffee chat about this and these were some of the ideas we came up with:

Who has legal liability in a driverless car accident?

In Australia, our roads are governed by laws that determine fault. However, these laws are premised on the assumption that motor vehicle operators have control of their vehicle. What happens when that control is instead the responsibility of a computer system designed by a separate third party manufacturer?

There may also be a potential ‘legal immunity’ that may be afforded to driverless cars. Will manual drivers face an increased onus on liability when their ‘flawed human decisions’ are compared to the seemingly perfect actions of a computer? If the computer is in fact the one who made an error, how would we be able to prove that?

Of course, an easy solution is to just assume that a driver is responsible for their vehicle regardless of whether or not a person or a computer is operating it. However, is that a fair solution considering that the whole purpose of a driverless system is to eliminate error?

Most of us agree that the manufacturer should bear that liability. However, with our existing laws, it seems that most likely the owner of the vehicle will bear the liability regardless of whom or what is operating it. This revelation may be unsettling for someone relying completely on a computer system. Imagine the legal ramifications if they were liable for an accident that caused serious injury or death.

A potentially complicated multi-party claim

Assuming that a driverless car system was to actually be responsible for an accident, the resulting lawsuit would most likely involve not only the drivers but also the car manufacturers, designers of the computer system, the car dealership, etc.

Placing blame on what went wrong will be an extremely heated legal battle. The complexity of new technology will require meticulous investigation on the cause of the accident:

  • -What was the physical condition of the vehicle?
  • -Was the car receiving proper automotive service by a mechanic?
  • -Was the mechanic able to account for the computer system?
  • -Was the accident actually caused by a manufacturer defect such as shoddy tires?
  • -Was the computer system hacked?

Since there has been no previous legal precedent on driverless cars, it may be safe to say that any reputable lawyer will seek to protect the interests of their client by suing every possible party. Lengthy priority disputes between third party insurers or companies are sure to follow.

Will privacy be an issue?

One of the practical applications of a driverless car system is its communication function with other driverless cars to determine when to slow down in order to provide ample driving distance. But how far will this technology go? The potential data that can be gathered by a driverless system brings up the concern of access because a driverless system is provided as a service and not actually owned by the car owner. Who else can be watching and recording where you are traveling to on a daily basis? Your car could potentially become a moving Facebook page with no security settings.

Increasingly complex insurance law and policies

If the laws were to shift to put a greater legal onus on manufacturers and software developers of a driverless car system, insurance companies may adapt by changing their personal liability policies in favour of product specific liability.

Some manufacturers may even seek to avoid liability by making it mandatory for consumers to accept complete liability as a condition of purchase.

Such a change could have a significant effect on how a regular Australian may need to interpret their insurance policy and may increase the need for a consumer to seek legal advice in order to protect their legal interests. There may be a whole new slew of exceptions and fine print that could easily be overlooked (e.g. if the customer accepts the responsibility of making sure they submit their vehicle to software updates.)

The future for driverless cars

The potential for safer roads in Australia is an endearing thought. However, in order to realize that dream someday, it may be necessary for Australians to prepare for the worst as our government and society adapts to account for the evolution of technology.

Do you have any questions about your legal rights on the road? Contact East Coast Injury Lawyerstoday for a free no obligation consultation by calling us at 1300 720 544 or filling out our case review form.