Self-Driving Vehicles and their Anticipated Impacts


By: Courtney Mazzio
Self-driving vehicles are quickly bursting onto the scene and federal regulatory bodies are ever-evolving policies with an effort caught in a tug of war between accelerating the development of the technology and encouraging safety. In September 2016 under the Obama administration, a policy addressing the development of self-driving vehicles was generated by the Department of Transportation, with its primary focus being safe development with some wiggle room for regulations to keep pace with the fast development of the technology. Currently, this policy is being re-worked, and the new guidelines scale back some of the recommendations previously made. For example, the new guidelines provide that manufacturers are encouraged, but not required, to engage in self-assessments, which will not be subject to federal approval. Thus, there is some concern that non-binding changes such as these could result in conflicting state laws.
Of further note is the conversation of whether and how the self-driving vehicle will mesh with pre-existing mandates on automobile safety standards. While Congress is starting to consider federal legislation that will regulate the roll out of self-driving vehicle systems, this is only the beginning. Right now, the development of the self-driving vehicle technology and use is only as limitless as the current infrastructure designed to regulate human-operated motor vehicles.
With so much in flux, one thing is for certain: the advent of the driverless car system is sure to dramatically change the landscape of driving regulations and motor vehicle liability in the years to come. Rather than actions that resound in negligence, actions will begin to take on the character of products liability. And rather than litigation in which the operator of the vehicle is the primary, if not only defendant, such litigation will involve vehicle designers and manufacturers responsible for the vehicle’s creation and defects. Trying to determine where liability ultimately lies in such actions is something that courts will certainly grapple with in this new age.
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