Autonomous cars, also known as self-driving vehicles, could be subjects of mass tort litigation in the not-too-distant future if the software or components that allow these vehicles to operate independently of driver malfunctions. Such a scenario would be particularly likely if property damage, injuries or even death resulted from an electronics or software malfunction. Self-driving vehicles have not been sold commercially, although prototypes have been tested on the roads. While autonomous vehicles seem like a quantum leap, they use technology that is only minimally advanced from vehicles currently in commercial production today.
Many late model vehicles on the road today are virtually rolling computers as they use a tremendous amount of software and miles of electronic wiring for operation. The safety packages now becoming standard on many vehicles have features such as electronic stability control that helps brake your vehicle if sensors anticipate a problem, collision warning, land departure warning, rear backup cameras and much more.
Product liability laws have already been advanced and tested enough to handle claims arising from failure of computers and other electronics in today’s vehicles. Such claims could involve flaws or failures which produced an accident but also instances where the installed safety features failed to prevent accident or injuries from happening. Many lawsuits have already been based on equipment malfunctions, most of which involved programming errors within software. The gear shift in the Jeep Grand Cherokee is one example. Drivers have believed their vehicle was in park when it was in neutral. Litigation has also involved airbag systems and sudden acceleration due to computer errors.
The concept of crash risk is another area where litigation could arise. The ability to make a vehicle “safe” during a crash can be compromised by a software glitch where an airbag would fail to deploy, thus putting vehicle occupants at additional risk. Some auto industry groups, however, have advocated an immunity from suit for autonomous vehicles, as studies have indicated that self-driving cars will produce fewer accidents, injuries and death. Legislation providing immunity from suit or caps on damages could be on the horizon if a proposed suit arises against an auto manufacturer.
The argument against immunity is in the current application of product liability law to defective components in the auto industry. Mass tort liability MDL cases, such as those involving Takata airbags, the GM ignition switch and the VW emissions litigation set precedents for flaws in self-driving vehicles to become MDL cases. Remember to stay safe when driving on the roads, whether you or a robot are behind the wheel. If you experience an accident on the road, contact us for an evaluation on whether your case is eligible for a higher insurance claim or lawsuit.