Is Tort Law a Roadblock for Driverless Cars?

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18 December 2013
Donald Light
In the December 17 Wall Street Journal, a column by Holman Jenkins, “Will Tort Law Kill Driverless Cars?” makes two arguments. First, the complexity of software required for driverless cars is a lawsuit that is waiting to be won by the personal injury/class action bar. And second that the potential size of auto manufacturers’ legal losses will likely halt the rollout of driverless cars. Driverless cars do require a combination of software, hardware, and communication devices. Deploying, integrating, and in some cases inventing these components is a work-in-progress. Equally challenging will be the human/machine interface—who/what takes or yields control under which circumstances? For example, if a car must swerve into the path of a large truck in order to avoid hitting a pedestrian, is that a human decision or machine decision—and is it decided in real time or in the factory? These are real questions. But there are multiple constituencies that have economic incentives to create the answers: manufacturers, owner/operators of driverless cars, local and national governments, and not least the insurance industry. Even the personal injury/class action bar is better off in a world of future technology that creates continuing opportunities for legal actions. Tort and liability issues will flash a yellow go-slow light for driverless cars for years—but will not shut down the road altogether.

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