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By Jim Adler May 8, 2015

Look out — driverless cars and trucks are coming. But though designed for safety, that doesn’t mean they won’t cause car crashes. When they do, what will be driverless cars laws and legal issues? Who will be defendant in a car wreck lawsuit to recover victims’ damages?

Indeed, driverless cars — also known an autonomous vehicles — may present challenging liability questions to the United States legal system. New laws may be needed.

Yet laws already exist which may be called into play when driverless vehicles hit the road and cause a wreck. Among such possible driverless cars laws are product liability laws, contract laws and laws concerning design defects when a driverless vehicle is believed to have caused an accident.

When there’s manufacturer failure for a driverless car or truck, makers of autonomous vehicles could be legally liable in a traffic accident lawsuit.

Car Wreck Lawsuit

In a normal car crash involving vehicles driven by human beings, if a driver causes a wreck at the wheel of, say, a Ford, victims would not file a car wreck lawsuit against Ford for the driver’s mistakes.

A lawsuit against Ford would apply only if a design defect or manufacturing defect in the car itself caused the crash, meaning Ford was negligent. But a driver’s mistake is a driver’s mistake.

But driverless vehicles will be another thing. When such vehicles cause a crash, it could be argued that the manufacturer was responsible for designing a flawed vehicle. So, when a driverless or autonomous vehicles causes a crash, the manufacturer could be held responsible in a court of law.

If this were the case, plaintiffs would have a large, inviting target for a lawsuit rather than filing it against an individual driver.

New Laws May Be Needed

But though future liability may be asserted by product liability laws, unforeseen circumstances could complicate a case in which a driverless vehicle was believed to have caused an accident. New laws may be needed to protect innocent drivers and passengers when driverless vehicles are put into action.

Perhaps a vehicle designed to drive safely by day isn’t quite as efficient at night, and thus causes a crash. Or perhaps the software and hardware weren’t fully compatible. Or perhaps a large pothole or road obstruction contributed to a driverless vehicle’s error.

Setting liability will be vital, but not in the immediate future. Driverless cars and trucks aren’t on our roads yet, and by 2025 only 230,000 are expected to have been sold. However, that will jump to nearly 12 million by 2035.

For now, the only such driverless vehicles are largely prototypes, or perhaps low-speed shuttles used on college campuses or office campuses. But driverless vehicles are coming — as will be driverless vehicle lawsuits.

Will Driverless Cars Be Safe?

The purpose of autonomous vehicles is to provide more safety on our roads. But will driverless cars be safe? And how about a driverless big rig truck?

To plan ahead, makers of autonomous vehicle technology want to test their vehicles on our roads to avoid potential pitfalls of their use.

So far, four states allow autonomous vehicles to be tested on public roads, provided a human driver remains behind the wheel for the tests. Those states are Florida, California, Nevada and Michigan, joined by the District of Columbia.

Texas does not allow such testing. But keep in mind that few laws specifically prohibit the general operation of such vehicles, apart from testing.

Makers of 18-wheeler trucks are hopeful that their vehicles will be among the first to be legally driverless. They argue for more states to allow the tests that are needed.

Until then, the complications and problems of driverless vehicles won’t be fully known, and driverless car liability may be a legal gray area.

In fact, it may not be until after autonomous vehicles become fairly common that nuances and variables of their defects become apparent. That certainly is the case with some pharmaceutical drugs, which are approved and released on the market, only to reveal defects and side effects later.

Sometimes, regulators and lawmakers must play “catch up.”

Driverless Car Liability

For now, we can only wait and hope that driverless vehicles will not be more dangerous than vehicles operated by human drivers, who often are inattentive, intoxicated, texting or willfully in violation of traffic laws.

But if and when problems do arise, determining driverless car liability will be crucial in protecting innocent drivers and their passengers if an autonomous vehicle causes a car crash.

Then or now, you can rely on Jim Adler & Associates to have knowledge of car accident laws and to fight for victims’ rights. If you need to hire a lawyer now, or in a future with driverless cars, let us help.

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