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Legal Questions Stall Roll-Out of Driverless Cars

If you are involved in an auto accident with another driver who is reckless or careless, establishing liability for injuries is fairly simple.carcrashinsurance

Minor damages are paid through one’s own insurer, per Florida’s no-fault rules. More substantial accidents may require claims or lawsuits against the other driver; their insurer should cover those damages. Where that driver lacks auto insurance or doesn’t have adequate coverage, drivers can file a claim for uninsured/ underinsured motorist benefits through their own carrier.

But what happens if the car that hits you doesn’t have a driver? The liability question is a legal snag regulators say must be resolved before these cars  hit the market en masse.

Driverless cars may sound like something out of “Total Recall,” but they are in fact a reality, and the question seems not if but when will these vehicles become more widely available. More than two dozen companies are investing millions into development of the technology, including Google, Apple, Tesla, General Motors, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Delphi Automotive.

On the one hand, this is good news. Of the more than 33,000 deadly car accidents that happen each year, and a significant portion of those are caused by driver error. In fact, a recent study by Virginia Tech researchers revealed more than half of all crashes are caused by driver distraction. That could be anything from reading a text message to arguing with someone in the passenger seat to checking directions.

That driverless cars might eliminate the human error could result in a huge reduction of traffic accidents. Just look at what front-end collision avoidance technology has done. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), an extensive three-year study has shown the auto-braking feature reduces the number of police-reported crashes by 40 percent.

On the other hand, there are some situations in which drivers do need to break the law in order to avoid trouble. For example, if the car ahead of you is stops suddenly, you may need to swerve outside your lane to avoid a collision. But will software developers program their vehicles to technically break the law?

And if a crash is caused by a driverless car, to whom is liability assigned?

Now, federal transportation officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) have offered their perspective. Google had asked the agency for interpretations in determining certification of its self-driving vehicles. Specifically, Google wanted to know: Who or what is considered to be the driver in a self-driving vehicle? Is the human passenger? Owner of the vehicle? The software company that developed the technology? The manufacturer? The company also wanted to know what legal requirements it would be subjected to, ranging from rearview mirrors to turn signals.

The agency stated that if a human occupant can’t actually drive the vehicle, it’s more reasonable to identify the “driver” as whatever, as opposed to whoever, is doing the driving. That means the designers and manufacturers of these vehicles are going to be subject to greater liability when crashes occur.

Software developers may have to request exemption for certain rules that apply to vehicles operated by people, but its not clear from which regulations they may be exempt.

We fully expect there will be an ongoing debate over the complex legal issues that arise as these vehicles become more mainstream.

Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights. Now serving Orlando, West Palm Beach, Port St. Lucie and Fort Lauderdale.

Additional Resources:

Google’s driverless cars are now legally the same as a human driver, Feb. 10, 2016, By Brian Fung, The Washington Post

More Blog Entries:

Wuthrich v. King County – When Vegetation Blocks a Driver’s View, Feb. 4, 2016, Fort Lauderdale Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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