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Saturday, May 25, 2013

Driverless Cars, Accident Liability and Preemption

Photo Credit: Google Inc.
The future really is now as the State of Michigan is attempting to determine liability rules for new driverless cars.  This technology is particularly important for transportation companies.  I know first hand, having been a manager at Federal Express, that the DOT rules for when and how much a driver can drive drastically effects a business.  If the trucks were driverless, then they could be easily equipt with larger gas tanks and drive non-stop to their destinations.

The question remains, who will be liable for auto accidents.  The most obvious answers include:
  • The driverless car’s owner under Michigan’s Owner Liability Law.
  • The driverless car’s “operator,” i.e., the person who engages the driverless technology which allows the car to drive autonomously.
  • The driverless car’s manufacturer.
  • The manufacturer of the technology which converts a traditional, driver-required car into a “driverless car.”
  • The upfitter or technician or specialist who installs the technology to convert a traditional, driver-required car into a driverless car.

This will have huge impact on the future of the insurance and transportation industries  but like so many technologies in the last twenty-five, driverless cars are coming and they will change the way the world works.  With that in mind, it might make sense for the federal government to create a universal auto liability system; though this would unprecedented.  Given that this technology will be used may very well be used primarily in interstate trucking, state-by-state regulation may be impractical.

In Bibb v. Navajo Freight Lines, Inc., 359 U.S. 520 (1959), the Court found that the requirement of different mudflaps in Illinois violated the Dormant Commerce Clause because interstate trucks would either need to stop and change the mudguards or avoid the state entirely.  The same thing could happen here.  If states develop inconstant laws for driverless cars, interstate trucks would need to stop at the border and await a driver.  Even if only the liability rules were different from state-to-state, it might require different parties to take out inconsistent insurance policies.

What do you think?  Should there be a federal standard for driverless cars?  What should it be?

For more information on the position of the State of Michigan, see:

Note: This article was recently picked up and republished online at