Science Fiction or Science Fact: Autonomous Cars May Soon Become Reality for Consumers

A concept of science fiction movies became reality overnight on October 9, 2010, when Google announced on its blog that it had created and tested a self-driving car:

“Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They’ve driven down Lombard   Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research.”

Some say autonomous car technology fits perfectly with Google’s work on mapping and software. Sebastian Thrun of Google said the technology was created to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time as they drive, and help lower emissions. Others hail this technology as one that will reduce traffic congestion and thereby decreasing drive time, not to mention stress. Sergey Brin, one of Google’s co-founders, expects the autonomous car to be market ready in less than five years.

With such an optimistic timeframe from developers, lawmakers are faced with the question of liability. Are today’s products liability laws ready to handle such advanced technology? Scholar Andrew P. Garza is confident that products liability laws are equipped to handle self-driving cars on the roads and the inevitable “wrinkles and wrecks” that may occur due to the technology. He explained how products liability law previously handled advances such as seat belts, air bags, and cruise control, and he suggests that self-driving technology will be handled in the same manner.

In the past, car manufacturers have been skeptical of new technologies because they increased manufacturer liability. For instance, the first seat belt was introduced in 1955, and Ford Motor Company led the charge to increase awareness and market-wide adoption. But others were skeptical. General Motors worked against such efforts and tried to discourage their adoption. After many years and involvement by organizations such as the American Medical Association and the U.S. Health Service, seat belts are the norm. To be sure, litigation has involved seat belts with claims such as defects that enhanced injuries, but products liabilities law have been able to address the technology adequately. Garza feels the same will be true of autonomous cars.

The sticky part of Garza’s argument is that one will not know if products liability laws are truly equipped to handle self-driving cars until the issues actually arise. Also, a major difference should be noted between truly automated driving and advances such as seat belts, cruise control, driver-assist parking, etc. The later technologies are not in complete control of one’s vehicle and can be manually disabled quickly. Additionally, driver-assist parking occurs at a very low rate of speed so in case of a glitch in the technology, the resulting damage to vehicles is likely minimal. The complexity of the autonomous car technology scares some consumers. Who hasn’t experienced the blue screen during computer failure? Or a computer shutdown during the least opportune time? If a car, driving at 70 mph on a freeway, experiences a computer shut down, the results could be disastrous. And liability issues then become complicated. Will the manufacturer or developer be to blame? Or the person manning the vehicle? These liability issues and more must be studied further before consumers take the wheel-or rather allow their computers to take the wheel.