Car manufacturers are working on self-driving technology even as you read this, and a growing list of driver-assistance features are making their way into each new generation of vehicles. However, a completely hands-off self-driving car is still a long ways off, and there’s reason to believe it will never fully come about. Even if self-driving vehicles manage to become safer and more reliable than the average human driver, there’s a little thing called “liability” that will keep drivers at the wheel for years to come.
The Responsibility Of Good Driving
There are some commercial products and some activities that come with a certain amount of risk. If you chop an onion with a knife you have to accept that you might cut your hand, and if you drive a vehicle you have to accept that you might run into another car hit a tree, or go over a cliff. If something like this happens, nine times out of ten it’s the driver’s fault and the driver’s insurance has to pay for the property damage, hospital bills, and other damages.
The Responsibility Of Self-Driving
A fully automated self-driving car doesn’t need a driver, at least in theory. If that’s the case, then the person in the front-left seat isn’t a driver responsible for staying safe on the road, they’re a passenger who’s along for the ride just as much as the people in the back row. If no one inside the car is responsible for its safety, the car’s manufacturer is responsible instead. So if an accident happens, the manufacturer has to be the one at fault.
The Liability Of Self-Driving
When a product fails to live up to the promises its manufacturer makes, that product is defective and the buyer can sue the company for damages. A completely self-driving car should be able to move between two points safely with no input from a driver, and if it causes an accident then it’s defective. With drivers in charge, the responsibility of traffic accidents is distributed between everyone involved. If manufacturers were in charge, the cost of every accident would be on them. Because of this, self-driving cars have to be better than just humans—they have to be virtually perfect.
The Realistic Goals Of Driver Assistance
Self-driving cars may need to be perfect before they show up on city streets, but until then automakers are developing all kinds of driver “assistance” features that can take limited control from the driver to do things like brake suddenly, stay in one lane, keep pace with traffic, or even parallel park. However, all of these features come with warnings that say the driver is ultimately responsible for the car, and you can turn off the features or override them easily. This means the driver is still liable for their driving skill, although future lawsuits may clarify this point.
Because of liability issues, it’s very likely that even after production cars can drive themselves, manufacturers will insist that a driver still sit at the controls and keep at least one hand on the wheel at all times. That’s good news for professional truck drivers, but it’s bad news for anyone waiting for that self-driving dream car. Until that day you should stay safe, drive carefully, and don’t rely too much on intentionally unreliable driver assistance features.