The legal implications of self-driving cars are hard to ignore following the first death related to the emerging technology. After an Uber test drive where neither the autonomous vehicle nor the human driver slowed for an Arizonian pedestrian, the company halted testing in the state as well as in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Toronto. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the company will be held at fault.

Without legislation to the contrary, for now it seems that the “drivers” of autonomous vehicles will be held liable. Indeed, less than a week after the fatal accident, a self-driving car was ticketed for driving too close to a pedestrian. There, the individual in the car was deemed responsible for the ticket. However, this is an area of law that could expand in coming years, and some states are already moving legislation to deal with the unique issues the technology presents. This is not the first time the automobile industry has had to question who bears liability. Back in MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co., the privity requirement was eliminated so that car owners could hold car manufacturers liable for vehicle or part defects despite the only direct contacts being with the dealership. Current proposals seem intent to limit manufacturers’ exposure, providing safe harbors unless there was a defect present in the vehicle originally.

Regardless, most companies do not appear to be slowing their investment in the technology, even following the fatal accident. While emphasizing safety in their testing, companies like BMW and Nissan reaffirmed their commitment to the technology shortly after the incident in Arizona. With the known dangers of human-directed driving—where 1.2 million are killed worldwide each year—and the apparent shielding of manufacturers from most of the liability in the event of an accident, Uber’s step back from the technology may be in the minority. As one of the big races in technology today, it will be interesting to see whether the law can keep pace with the advancements of the industry itself.

Sara Anderson


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