The Legal Implications of Driverless Cars

driverless car on the road

Multiple companies are currently in the process of manufacturing driverless cars and many experts predict that they will be on the market for consumer purchase within several years. As technology transforms the way we live, the legal system must also keep up and create rules and regulations that govern these changes. Nearly half of Americans said they would ride in a driverless car in a recent Pew Research Center. But who is going to be legally responsible when something goes wrong?

driverless car on the road


The first factor to consider is the pace at which the legal system will respond to driverless cars. Like other emerging technologies, laws tend to develop after the technology has impacted our social norms. Prior to that, regulators are often in the tough position of coming up with fair balance that allows development of high-tech features while reducing safety risks for their constituents. This may often lead to stagnation, and a dependence on automakers to provide a degree of self-regulation in adopting high standards for these vehicles.

Traffic Violations

Other legal implications involve specific traffic violations. Many lawyers, academics, and auto designers say that none of these events will prevent self-driving cars from being released because current liability laws provide some common sense guidance on who is likely to be responsible for a number of occurrences.

In the case of traffic tickets, even if the car broke when there is no other driver/passenger present, the owner of the car would most likely be liable for the payment of the ticket.

If there were a car crash that involves injuries or fatalities, various parties would be involved in the investigation and likely end up suing each other. Ultimately, the car manufacturer may bear the brunt of responsibility, at least for civil penalties. Manufacturers are ultimately responsible for faulty products under product liability laws and there will undoubtedly be questions raised about why the driverless car was not able to detect dangers or imminent threats.

Driverless cars will have video and other data about each drive taken, which will help to figure out what went wrong and provide a strong indication as to which party is to blame. However, the subject of criminal penalties is an unclear area because machines cannot be charged with intent to purposely cause harm. The first deadly accident will certainly be a true test of the legal implications for owners, designers, and manufacturers – especially when the family of the injured is looking for someone to be held responsible for the loss they have suffered.

Next Steps

The current Federal Automated Vehicles Policy by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the U.S. Department of Transportation state that manufacturers and other entities should have documented plans regarding how they intend to comply with all the relevant Federal, State, and local laws. The vehicle, they say, should obey all governing traffic laws and in safety-critical situations such as having to cross double lines to avoid a broken-down vehicle, they are expected to handle these events.

For now, consumers will have to wait until automakers are confident in their driverless vehicles to truly understand the legal implications they will face.