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Driverless, automated cars are the future -- at least if you listen to techies. Companies like Google and Tesla are pouring millions into self-driving cars. Ford and GM have jumped on the bandwagon. Even the Department of Transportation is getting on board, with the new driverless car funding and regulation.
You know who else is excited? Personal injury lawyers -- even though hi-tech cars might reduce automobile accidents. Here's why.
Who Do You Sue When Google Is the Driver? Google.
When it comes to self-driving cars, the software is the driver. At least, that's the determination of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In early February, NHTSA released an interpretation of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards which declared:
As a foundational starting point for the interpretations below, NHTSA will interpret 'driver' in the context of Google's described motor-vehicle design as referring to the [self-driving system], and not to any of the vehicle occupants.
That's a significant statement. There are some caveats, however. NHTSA's interpretation applies to whether Google's software can even meet safety standards, not whether or how the software (and it's deep-pocketed corporate designers) could be held liable fault when something goes wrong.
But even with those reservations, personal injury attorneys should be excited. Former Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna, for example, believes that the software, not people, could be held accountable for self-driving accidents.
What If Google Is Never at Fault?
But, if you listen to advocates of self-driving cars, the new driverless technology will actually reduce automobile accidents -- drastically. According to Google, driverless cars are virtually infallible. In the over 16 accidents Google's cars have been in, the company has put the blame on the other driver every time.
That is, until recently. In March, Google accepted partial responsibility for a collision between one of its cars and a city bus. It was the first time the company had admitted its car did something wrong in a collision.
That software can make mistakes isn't surprising to anyone who has struggled with a crashing P.C. or a buggy smart phone. But for Google to admit its fallibility is noteworthy. And while that fender-bender didn't result in any litigation -- the cars collided at 15 miles per hour after all -- such accidents could increase in the future, giving rise to a whole new form of PI litigation.