Self-Driving Cars: A Safe New World?

Google’s autonomous (self-driving) car has received quite a bit of attention recently, with some media outlets predicting that the technology will be used in Canada by the year 2020.

Certainly, there are limitations to the technology that will need to be addressed before the product is brought to market. For instance, Google’s self-driving cars cannot be operated in inclement weather conditions such as snow or heavy rain. In addition, the car’s sensors cannot differentiate between a potential road hazard (such as a rock) and a non-hazard (such as a crumpled paper bag), and so the car will swerve around each. While the car can detect a pedestrian in the street, it cannot detect and respond to a police officer waving from the side of the road to direct traffic in an emergency.

Assuming these technical issues are remedied and the product is successfully (and safely) brought to market, accidents will still happen. However, our current laws are ill-equipped to deal with an automotive landscape where cars are self-driven by computers rather than controlled by human operators. For instance, how can a “driver” be held responsible for an accident when he or she did none of the driving? The system, it seems, would require comprehensive reform: either injured parties will have to look exclusively look to vehicle manufacturers, programmers, and municipalities for fault in motor vehicle accident claims, or we will have to set aside issues of liability entirely and turn to an expanded no-fault scheme.

While manufacturers and computer programmers continue to work away, lawmakers and insurers will be carefully looking over their shoulders.

Stay tuned.

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