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Autonomous vehicles may be the next revolution in human mobility. While all vehicles available today still require varying degrees of driver engagement, driver assistance systems are able to take over an increasing number of functions beyond the long-existing cruise control. The increasing prevalence of driver assistance systems such as lane-keeping-assist or adaptive cruise control and the seemingly inevitable arrival of fully autonomous driving raises questions regarding the future treatment of automobile accident-related liability.

As the software in a vehicle takes over more aspects of control, the parties among whom liability for an accident may be assigned increases. The question of liability when an autonomous vehicle is involved will be open to novel questions regarding multiple factors. Civil liability may be based on either tort or warranty theories. The vehicle manufacturer may be liable for failing to use the most up-to-date technology available. The owner of the vehicle may be liable for not installing the latest software update. The operator may be liable for using the automated systems under improper circumstances. A hacker may be liable for altering the vehicle’s software and, in turn, the manufacturer, owner, and/or operator may be liable for not taking reasonable steps to prevent the malicious interference. If an autonomous car was determined to be an unreasonably dangerous product, manufacturers could be subject to strict liability regardless of how much care they exercise in developing the vehicle.

The insurance industry will also have to adapt to a future of autonomous vehicles. Currently, insurance coverage is generally triggered or denied based on the fault of drivers. Insurance companies may have to treat a driverless car itself as the insured driver, or create a wholly new category for the purpose of insuring autonomous vehicles. Additionally, state laws regarding insurance will need to adapt to a driverless future. While automobile insurance is mandatory in almost all states, it is mandatory for the driver, not each individual vehicle. Whether the owner of a driverless vehicle would be required to purchase insurance for the vehicle under current laws is unclear.

The arrival of autonomous vehicles on a mass scale is seemingly inevitable, and as the vehicles on the road push ever closer to being truly autonomous, laws and regulations will need to be established to address the associated concerns.

Article by Ben Warren

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