Automated Cars, Legal Liability, and Trolley Problems

Web Admin - Tuesday, March 17, 2015

driverless car liability, Rolling Meadows car acciddent lawyerAlthough driverless cars were squarely in the realm of science fiction until recently, Google and other companies are moving towards making them a reality at a surprisingly rapid pace. As beneficial as these cars may prove to be, there are also concerns about them from a legal standpoint. One of the major issues is the question of who the law should hold responsible in the event of a traffic accident. There are also separate concerns about legal liability and ethics when driverless cars face difficult decisions, such as in the famous Trolley Problem.

General Liability Issues

One of the biggest legal issues related to driverless cars is the question of liability for accidents. With ordinary cars, liability is usually limited to one of the drivers, but that system would not work with driverless cars for obvious reasons. Many people's first instinct is to place liability on the company that makes the car. However, there are a variety of issues with that. First, it is possible that the accident with a driverless car was not the result of error by the manufacturer, but a problem with upkeep on the part of the owner. If the car's owner did not keep it properly maintained and that resulted in an accident, it would be unusual to put liability on the car's manufacturer. Beyond that, placing that much possible liability on the company could potentially cripple the development of the driverless cars.

The other competing theory is to treat driverless cars much like we treat cars now, and require people to insure them. This would remove liability from the possibly innocent owners, but it would come at the cost of increasing how expensive driverless cars are.

The Trolley Problem

A related issue is the question of how driverless cars would deal with the Trolley Problem. The Trolley Problem is an ethical dilemma in which a person is standing at a railroad switch, and they see a train coming. They know the train is going to hit five people on its current track, but the person at the switch has the option to throw the switch, sending it down a different track and only killing one person. Although it is an ethical dilemma, it may have important legal ramifications.

For instance, suppose a child darts out in front of a driverless car, and the car’s only option to avoid the child is to crash into something else, likely injuring the passengers. The car would need to make that decision, and definitely injure either the child or the passengers. The law would then need to determine whether the victim of the car's decision would have a claim against the manufacturer.

Although driverless car accidents are still a few years off, ordinary car accidents can still cause serious injuries. If you have recently been hurt in a car crash, contact an experienced Illinois personal injury attorney today. Drost, Gilbert, Andrew & Apicella, LLC serves clients in many northwest suburban towns, such as Rolling Meadows, Palatine, and Des Plaines. 

Ken ApicellaAbout the Author: Attorney Ken Apicella is a founding partner of DGAA focusing in the areas of personal injury, employment, insurance coverage disputes, and civil litigation. Ken earned his J.D. from DePaul University College of Law in 1999. He has been named a SuperLawyers Rising Star and a Forty Illinois Attorneys Under Forty to Watch. Ken has written and lectured for the Illinois Institute for Continuing Legal Education and regularly serves as a moderator at Northwest Suburban Bar Association's Continuing Legal Education seminars.

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