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Clay Rossi
Clay Rossi
Attorney • (800) 574-4332

Not Your Granddaddy’s Oldsmobile

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Someone raised the question to me  years ago when rear-view camera technology emerged: Are vehicles that don’t have the blind-spot eliminating technology defectively designed given that the camera-equipted ones are a safer alternative? It was a theoretical question and to my knowledge it’s never been used as a legal theory in a case. However, that question was always a harbinger for me, a reminder of how technology can turn areas of law practice on its head very quickly.

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Enter the driverless car. Google, one of the purveyor of all things futuristic, has proclaimed that its self-driving car technology out-performs human drivers. Does this mean that Jetsonian driverless cars are right around the corner? According to MIT, the the answer is a resounding “Yes.” When you ruminate on the implications of self-driving cars, you quickly see that such a technology is a watershed event not only socially, but also for the purposes of the law and our understanding of liability.

One can immediately see that the technology could virtually eliminate drunk driving as the designated cyber driver could carry the inebriated home with no danger to themselves or others. By implication that would radically reduce the need for sobriety checkpoints which in turn would reduce the number of citations which means less of a need for attorneys who practice DUI defense and attorneys who represent those injured by drunk drivers. In the changed landscape, where do the unneeded cops and lawyers go?

Next we can assume that the robo-cars will be programmed to obey all traffic laws. If they perform as programmed, this means that there should be a tremendous decline in tickets which means there will also be a tremendous decline in revenue from those tickets. Will state and local government fight the allegedly safer self-driving technology because it would cut into their coffers. Is there any argument they could make putting ticket revenue above the lives of citizens? Safer (robot-)drivers also means less auto wreck cases which means less work for those dedicated to that practice area.

Then there is the question of what happens if the technology goes HAL 9000 and injures the occupants or others? Does the car owner have the non-delegable duty concerning his car’s proper operation  that we all learned about in Maloney v. Rath? These systems are not a new set of brake pads. How is the world is a driver to have any inkling that the high-tech hardware and million of lines of software code is functioning properly? What happens if the car company’s hardware and/or software is solely to blame? Will the courts allow the typical one-sided, mediation clause-laden car sales agreement to unfairly transfer liability away from the car companies?  How many and what kind of experts would be needed to prove a product liability case against a manufacturer in tis type of case?

Finally, there is the issue of the malicious third-party hacker. A Forbes report from earlier this year showed that right now, under current technology, hackers can hijack a car while the driver is in it and cause any manner of mischief. What are the duties of car manufactures to make their vehicle hacker-proof both now and in the coming age of self-driving cars?

There are no answers right now, only questions. We can begin to think about the implications and try to get out in front of the curve but we don’t have much time. According to General Motors, the robot cars cometh by 2020.