In a recent blog article, we suggested that the preferential tool for dealing with insurance, liability and compensation issues arising from the use of driverless cars would be one most in tune with, and least disruptive of, the civil justice system’s current operation.
We noted that one way to implement that goal would be an amendment like this one to Vehicle Code, § 38750: “The operation of a vehicle, in an autonomous or semi-autonomous mode, shall be imputed to (and be deemed the conduct of) its primary operator.” A statutory definition of “primary operator” would be added to assure that it encompassed, where applicable, a non-driver occupant (or a non-occupant) who, while owning, controlling, or permissively using the vehicle, established and entered the trip’s destination into the vehicle’s operating system. If such a statute were enacted, the statutory limited liability (set forth in Vehicle Code Section 17150) of a vehicle owner for negligence while her vehicle is being permissively used by another could remain unaltered.
Dealing with these issues now seems especially timely, given their recent prominence in the news. The latest headline is in the San Francisco Chronicle dated May 12, 2015. It states: “Denting Their Credibility: Google Self-Driving Cars Have 11 Minor Crashes in 6 Years.” In the true spirit of California’s adversary civil justice system, the Google representative’s quoted comment denies fault for any of these incidents: “Not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident.”
Since Google and other experimenters are the owners of the current 48 driverless cars on California highways, issues of liability and compensation in these incidents can be investigated and adjudicated, as needed, under existing law.
But before these vehicles do get more universally into use by the driving public, the insurance, liability, and compensation issues mentioned above (and explored at length in my prior article) must be addressed. The primary legislative and judicial concern will be whether a vehicle owner should bear liability for the negligent operation, if any, of a driverless car. Since there is ample legal precedent cited in my earlier article for the proposition that an owner bears legal liability for malfunctions of her property, this is the legislative course which we suggest.