When Smart Cars Crash, Who’s to Blame?

We’re well on our way to a future of self-driving cars – but uncertainty still paves the road ahead. When a driverless car crashes, who’s at fault? And who pays for the damages? Likely not the driver.

Bryant Walker Smith, a global authority on legal aspects of emerging technologies and one of the foremost legal experts in the field of autonomous vehicles, expects liability to shift from the person to the product. Primary responsibility will belong to the automotive industry – the conglomerate of manufacturers and software developers who design and update car computers.

It’s just one of the many findings Smith drives home in “Automated Driving and Product Liability,” a 77-page research study The Washington Post calls “the most definitive public legal research to date on autonomous cars.” The implications are far-reaching. For one, automakers will factor risk into its sticker prices to cover the cost of potential liability claims. And the impact on insurance, an industry that so far has no roadmap for how to deal with the new technologies? Unknown but significant.

It won’t happen overnight, though. Smith predicts we’re about 10 years away from full automation. The technology itself still needs to improve. And collectively, we must also decide how safe is safe enough? And how is safety measured? These are challenging questions that will continue to confront a range of disciplines.

Smith is helping all of us – innovators, investors, regulators and everyday drivers – contemplate the answers, while also offering the insights needed to better understand the law and technology relationship, and why it matters.

Danny Stern: