In a 2019 interview, inventor and entrepreneur Elon Musk stated: “I think we will be ‘feature-complete’ on full self-driving this year, meaning the car will be able to find you in a parking lot, pick you up, take you all the way to your destination without an intervention this year.” Many experts are skeptical of Musk’s predictions, claiming the technology needed to make fully autonomous cars is years away.
Albeit the skepticism, Tesla and over fifty other companies including GM, Daimler, Apple, Intel, and Uber, are working on producing both driverless cars and trucks. Trucking alone is an almost 700 billion dollar industry. The introduction of autonomous trucks could drastically improve the efficiency and productivity of the trucking industry that helps carry nearly 70% of all U.S. freight.
Waymo, a Google subsidiary, has been testing its autonomous trucks in California and Arizona for more than a year. In California specifically, the DMV proposed a regulation allowing the testing and deployment of autonomous delivery vehicles that weighed less than 10,001 pounds on California’s public roads. The California DMV subsequently adopted several regulations governing the public use and testing of autonomous vehicles, which include three permit options for manufacturers: (1) a deployment (public use) permit; (2) a driverless testing permit; and (3) a testing permit, which requires a driver.
However, these new regulations and test runs for autonomous vehicles are not without fault or failure. In March 2019, a driver activated his Tesla Model 3 autopilot feature, and within 8 seconds of off-hand driving, the car crashed into a semitrailer, resulting in the driver’s death. As of late 2018, both Cruise (a GM subsidiary) and Waymo’s autonomous vehicles were involved in fifty-one and thirty-seven crashes respectively. However, some analysts have discovered that the leading cause of crashes involved with AVs was attributed to human error rather than a technological flaw of the AV.
Interestingly, Axios, a news medium outlet, conducted a study of autonomous vehicle (“AV”) crashes in California from 2014-2018 and found that humans were the predominant cause of these crashes, not the AVs themselves. Axios found that of the thirty-eight crashes where the AV was moving, humans caused thirty-seven. Furthermore, when the AV was moving in conventional mode, where humans are at the wheel, AVs caused six of nineteen crashes. Additionally, the National Highway Transportation Safety Association conducted a study that revealed 94% of all serious automobile crashes are caused by human error. Thus, even with the AV’s potential ability to reduce serious vehicular accidents, there is room for AV error, and the surrounding legal issues around it are quite murky.
In the midst of all the crashes and controversy, where does the law stand? In the area of tort law, it is likely there will be a shift from individuals filing human negligence claims to individuals filing product liability claims. Turning to increased litigation expenses, if an AV malfunctions and causes a crash, there will be a demand for expertise in analytics, algorithms, statistics, and programming to assess the cause of the crash, which will likely result in costly litigation. Additionally, many insurance carriers have policies in place that only cover damages resulting from an AV if the driver is partially in control and not in autopilot mode. Lastly, in the case of respondeat superior liability between employers and their employees who “drive” AVs, employers could face increased liability if an accident occurs. Thus, employers may need to evaluate whether the use of AVs is worth the potential risk. Assessing who is to blame, what is covered, and how to resolve damages from an AV related crash are all factors that have not yet been fully considered or regulated.
There is hope that these questions will be answered as Congress pushes for the federal regulation of AV cars with proposed legislation such as the AV Start Act (the “Act”). Although the Act failed to pass in 2018, renewed efforts are emerging to pass the Act which would create uniform regulation on AVs and stop states from creating laws that would make it difficult for AV’s to cross state lines. Furthermore, the Act could help reduce cyber vulnerabilities, promote consumer safety, and update federal motor vehicle safety standards to include AVs.
For now, all those who want to jump on the auto-pilot Tesla bandwagon may want to wait to see how the legislation will play out. AVs are driving into uncharted waters and only time will tell whether the driverless car will become the new generation’s friend or foe.
Golzar Yazdanshenas is a second-year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and several minors, including one in Science Technology & Law from Virginia Tech. Upon graduation, she intends to practice in both corporate and intellectual property law.