The 2004 movie I, Robot features an Audi RSQ that drives itself among other autonomous vehicles in the year 2035. Leading actor Will Smith’s character constantly overrides the car’s autopilot feature in favor of his manual driving, particularly to the surprise of leading actress Bridget Moynahan’s character, who questions Smith, “What do you think you’re doing?” and “By hand?” With autonomous vehicles emerging quickly, we’re headed toward a world dominated by driver-less vehicles.

The advantages of autonomous vehicles range from environmental improvement to increased mobility for the elderly, but undoubtedly the most important and appealing advantage is reducing car crashes. A tragic 1.3 million people die in car crashes per year, with another 20-50 million injured or disabled. The Association for Safe International Road Travel forecasts that road traffic injuries could become the fifth leading cause of death by 2030. It’s undeniable that autonomous vehicles would reduce crashes and offer other advantages, but could the liability against manufacturers halt the emerging technology?

Liability for autonomous vehicle crashes hasn’t been pinned down by an enacted law or a hallmark case, but it appears as though drivers have no need to worry about being held liable for the crashes. It’s likely that manufacturers will be held liable for the crashes and faults in their software technology, and some manufacturers–including Mercedes Benz and Volvo–have already made assurances that they will take on the liability incurred from autonomous crashes.

With liability likely to fall on manufacturers, how does that burden influence the progression of autonomous vehicle technology? There is a concern about liability creating a chilling effect on producing the technology, which would in turn halt the development of the technology in the near future. With progression in technology and various avenues for testing products, though, I believe manufacturers will continue to find ways to create and improve autonomous vehicle technology. Considering that manufacturers have already fearlessly embraced liability concerns, it’s unlikely that they’ll stop pursuing the advantageous (read: profitable) technology altogether. Therefore, it’s important to consider economic implications of manufacturer liability, rather than merely being worried that grossly successful companies will throw in the towel on autonomous technology.

Autonomous vehicles aren’t cheap; a Toyota Prius model today costs upwards of $300,000IHS Automotive predicts that the price of autonomous technology will add $7,000-$10,000 to a car’s price in 2025, $5,000 in 2030, and $3,000 in 2035. Simultaneously, IHS predicts that sales will increase from 230 thousand cars in 2025 to 11.8 million cars in 2035. However, only about 4.8 million of the 11.8 million cars will operate entirely on autonomous technology (the other 7 million will have a combination of driver and autonomous control). Altogether, IHS predicts that 54 million autonomous cars will be circulating in 2035.

A main concern with these statistics is bi-fold: (1) the majority of vehicles will not be entirely autonomous, and (2) there will still be plenty of manually driven vehicles on the road. These two points suggest that, while crashes will surely decline due to less human error, people may maintain at least a minimal part in driving with most autonomous software, and not all people will have access to the software. Combining these points, it’s clear that we won’t live in a world free of car crashes and subsequent liability concerns surrounding the crashes. With no “loser pays” rule in the American legal system, companies could be bombarded with lawsuits from autonomous vehicle accidents. Considering that manual vehicles will still be prevalent and that most autonomous vehicles will contain a driver-input feature, there is unlikely to be a shortage of lawsuit avenues to pursue. Therefore, significant liability on manufacturers, legal fees, and manufacturers’ insurance could all factor into autonomous vehicle pricing.

With autonomous vehicle prices significantly higher than the average amount spent on cars, and the average American’s significant lack of income for car payments, it would be difficult for the average American to afford an autonomous vehicle. Under the current liability trend, liability concerns could increase the prices even more and make autonomous vehicles even less obtainable.

While the legal system may be able to solve the autonomous vehicle liability question through existing products liability, such a solution may not lead to an economically feasible outcome. With the unwavering possibility of lawsuits against manufacturers, and the alarming prices on autonomous vehicles, the legal system needs to adopt a liability approach that will support the emergence of this technology. Such an approach must strive to hold manufacturers liable when proper, but also shield them from a flood of lawsuits and legal fees. Traditional products liability will not adequately support technology while providing proper remedies, so I urge a different or additional approach (to be determined by those much more intelligent than I) so we can embrace the advantages of autonomous vehicles sooner than later. Until then, expect to keep your hands on the wheel.

J.T. Parisi

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