North Carolina Law Review

University of North Carolina School of Law

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Blame It on the Machines: How Autonomous Vehicles Will Impact Allocation of Liability Insurance and the Resulting Impact on the Legal Community

December 2, 2016

95 NC L Rev Addendum 29 (2016)

 

The notion of a driverless car transcends generations, ever since the American people became fascinated with the idea during a time when optimism was at a premium. The 1939 New York World's Fair featured an exhibit named "The World of Tomorrow" to which millions came to see a glimpse into the future. One particular exhibit by General Motors displayed "abundant sunshine, fresh air [and] fine green parkways" with cars that could drive themselves. In today's popular culture, a vision of the future imagines a similar element of automation, with driverless cars serving as an integral element of that vision. Science fiction movies set in the not-so-distant future feature artificial intelligence, sleek design, and a swath of autonomous vehicles carrying passengers going about their daily business. Now it seems that this long-awaited vision may be coming sooner than anticipated, as Google has developed a series of prototype autonomous vehicles that have now logged over one million self- driven miles.

 

Dampening the enthusiasm for the new technology is a growing concern that the invention has outpaced its legal framework. The concern came to fruition in July 2015 when a regular car collided with Google's autonomous vehicle, causing minor injuries to the three Google employee passengers. This scenario raises the question of who pays for the costs of an accident when a fully autonomous vehicle collides with another object.

 

State legislatures have been slow to create statutory frameworks to regulate this new form of transportation. At least one legal scholar has proposed that autonomous vehicles are already legal in the United States without the adoption of statutes explicitly allowing for the use of such cars. Furthermore, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ("NHTSA") has begun to prepare for the legal challenges posed by autonomous vehicles. NHTSA, an agency within United States Department of Transportation, sets and enforces safety performance standards for motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment. NHTSA, in a letter to Google, stated that it "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." If NHTSA's letter indicates a changing interpretation that "drivers" of autonomous vehicles are actually the vehicles themselves, then a new question arises: who should bear the liability when the driver is the self-driving system crashes?

 

This Recent Development will look at the automotive liability landscape through two lenses: (1) the common law fault-based litigation approach and (2) the no-fault liability insurance scheme. Further, this Recent Development will analyze how each type of insurance scheme currently in place could apply to autonomous vehicles, while also determining which insurance scheme is most appropriate to adequately compensate plaintiffs in claims related to fully autonomous vehicles. Finally, this Recent Development argues that strict liability should be imposed on the manufacturer of an autonomous vehicle, due to the passive nature of the owner's usage of the vehicle, the complexity of the driverless system, and the ability to spread losses and encourage research and development by the vehicle manufacturer. 

 

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