Self-driving cars: The next big hurdle in auto accident law

With news reporting that Self-Driving cars would be road-ready by 2020, it seems like the future is easily here. What has once science fiction and the imaginings of Batman writers is becoming a reality. Besides saving the government money and increasing road safety, the effects of a society that includes driverless vehicles are really hard to imagine.

In the world of personal injury, of course, that is a problem. The State of Ohio reported a staggering 287,050 crashes in 2012, with almost 75,000 of them including some form of injury.

But all of that might change with algorithm-driven vehicles. Google reported that its main test car has gone 300,000 miles without a single accident. Of all of the autonomous cars on the road today, they've only had three accidents total; and each one the driverless car was not at fault.

So what happens when a driverless car is at fault?

"Negligence is usually defined as with the reasonably prudent person standard," says former personal injury attorney in Cincinnati, OH, "I don't think that a car or artificial intelligence can be sued for negligence. By definition they would be incapable of being negligent."

Not that people haven't tried. In 2010 a Paris Court ordered a judgment against not only Google, but its search engine, ordering the google's AI to make a symbolic 1-Euro payment after suggesting defamatory words as part of a search for the plaintiff's name. Google, meanwhile, had to pay almost 5000 euros in the judgment.

This begs the question: if you're not to sue the AI, then who? "whoever set the car's controls would be responsible". "If that is the manufacturer, then it is a product defect." But if those controls were set by a driver, then they may have to take responsibility for the car whether they are the personally operating the vehicle themselves, much like if a child were to be injured by a moving santa-on-a-train display in your yard, you would still be liable.

It may even be more complicated. Forbes reports that automakers plan to use the same radio spectrum currently used for Wi-Fi. This, some speculate, might lead to a disruption of communication between the car and satellites-leading to a fatal car accident-just because someone really needed to download another cat picture to their laptop nearby.

Ultimately, however, it's simply hard to imagine what the future of automated cars will actually be like, and it will be entirely new territory when a case reaches the courts. "Trying to predict how existing case law would apply to the situation would depend largely on the state in which it occurred and the specific facts of the accident," says attorney Andrew Trice. "For example, the fact that the driver ignored a rule or disrupted the auto-pilot somehow would be very significant."

Speculations about the court's decisions are about as reliable as speculations about insurance premium drops once automated cars are on the road. Until then, we can only dream of a future where we can nap on our way to work. And if we encounter one of Google's driverless cars on a San Francisco road...well, we'll just give it a wide berth.