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Will lawsuits kill the autonomous car?

While no one has the answer, a recent conference at Stanford provides clues to the legal precedents that could pave the way for self-driving cars.

By Douglas Newcomb Apr 15, 2013 6:20AM

Lexus self-driving research vehicle. Photo by Toyota.The discussion on self-driving cars is no longer hypothetical. As automakers, suppliers and Google accelerate work on autonomous vehicles, we can already predict the future.

Politicians are also clearing the way for self-driving cars by passing laws that allow autonomous vehicles to operate on public roads on a state-by-state basis. But along with public acceptance, liability is by far the biggest hurdle, experts agree.

Lawyers have been discussing the ramifications of self-driving cars for some time, according to F. Daniel Siciliano, an associate dean at Stanford Law School. Siciliano spoke about this issue at an event I attended to kick off Stanford's REVS program.

That event was two years ago, before "if" turned to "when" in our talks on autonomous vehicles. I approached Siciliano after his talk and asked if self-driving cars were a topic that the legal community was just starting to take into consideration. "No, this is something we’ve been discussing for several years now," he replied.

The discussion continued last week at another Stanford conference, "We Robot: Getting Down to Business," which brought together more than 100 thought leaders on robotics, in part to plot the legal path self-driving cars are likely to take. And the discussions and comments provided a peek into how liability issues could be solved based on precedents.

One option would be to enact a federal law that would limit the liability of a "robot" manufacturer. Such a sweeping measure is generally acknowledged as having helped save the U.S. aviation industry when President Bill Clinton signed a law in 1994 that limited the legal exposure of aviation manufacturers. But Bryant Smith, a resident fellow at the Stanford Center for Internet and Society, questioned whether it was "appropriate to have a federal legislative response" to liability issues surrounding autonomous cars.

University of Washington law school professor Ryan Calo proposed extending selective immunity to robot manufacturers, similar to the way Congress has provided similar protection to firearm manufacturers. Calo suggested that immunity would apply only when "it is clear that the robot was under the control of the consumer."

A common question that comes up -- "How will robo-cars coexist with cars driven by regular people?" -- doesn't have any concrete answers yet, although the idea of special freeway lanes for autonomous cars has been floated.

Still, any future media reports about self-driving cars causing accidents could "set back the movement significantly," Josh Blackman, a law professor at the South Texas College of Law, said at the Stanford conference. He added that such events "could result in a legal crackdown on a useful technology that will save far more lives than it takes," according to CNET.

The benefits of self-driving cars -- fewer accidents, less traffic, less fuel consumed, less time stuck in traffic and greater mobility for everyone -- are as undeniable as a future of autonomous vehicles is inevitable. And the fact that you can still enjoy driving on a winding, deserted country road and have the machines and data take over on a crowded and frustrating freeway commute makes this vision of the future more palatable for automotive enthusiasts.

As with most technological innovations, the general consensus is that liability issues will be worked out over time. And I agree with Curtis Karnow, a superior court judge in San Francisco, who indicated at the Stanford conference that he has more faith in machines driving cars than distracted and fallible humans.

"Most of these products do what they are told to do, in the way they are told to do it," he said. "Unintended injuries are often just the result of human error."

Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.

Aug 28, 2013 11:51AM
Can't wait, driving sucks, this will change the world as we know it. hope they are built by American workers and an American company.
Apr 29, 2013 1:26AM

All driverless cars technological roadblocks are either already solved or will be solved in the next few years. The only roadblock remaining is the "liability" roadblock:

“What is the limit from where drivers having an accident, when his car is in automa

Apr 28, 2014 9:58AM
It has been stated that these cars have problems when the weather turns bad (overcast, slick roads). I've heard some speculation that drivers with atrophied skills will have a hard time handling only the worst conditions.

Also, manufacturers haven't been good citizens  . . . how many times have we seen them NOT do the right thing in the name of profit. Why would we want to limit their liability? Sounds like a recipe for disaster.

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