After an Accident, Would You Sue a Self-Driving Car?

By: Bridget Clerkin May 10, 2018
Many Americans say they'd willingly sue a self-driving car if they were involved in a car accident with one.
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Ed.’s note: This is the fourth in a series of five articles on the future of the legal issues surrounding autonomous vehicles.

Check out the other entries in our series on self driving cars and the law:

As the concept of autonomous vehicles continues moving forward, auto manufacturers won’t just have to change how their cars operate; they’ll have to change consumers’ minds about accepting the technology.

Trust has long been a thorny issue for carmakers looking to push their driverless designs on the masses, with a number of surveys on the matter conducted over the years showing widespread reluctance from the public to take an autonomous ride. And modest gains in consumer confidence in the technology reported earlier this year were all but obliterated in the wake of several high-profile, deadly accidents involving the vehicles this spring, fundamentally bringing the process of trust-building for manufacturers back to square one.

But cultivating a common faith in the machines isn’t just essential to ensure the products can be sold—it could prove pivotal in seeing automakers safely through the coming decades where a legal grey area surrounding the technology could lead to myriad lawsuits, as developers continue working out all the kinks in the cars.

Greater trust could lead users of the adapting technology to extend the benefit of the doubt through the awkward phase of the vehicles’ development—but a culture of fear or confusion could usher in a mountain of costly legal bills for manufacturers.

To further understand consumers’ thoughts on the issue—and gauge their appetite for seeking legal recourse—research group J.D. Power recently teamed up with law firm Miller Canfield to survey 1,500 members of the public, asking the group about their thoughts on suing in the wake of a self-driving accident.

And just like the other aspects of legal fallout following an autonomous vehicle crash, results were heavily dependent on the specifics.

Participants were asked to consider several hypothetical scenarios, including crashes perpetrated by vehicles of varying levels of automation, with results finding that the more capable a car was of driving itself, the more likely those surveyed were to sue.

With vehicles registered at a “Level 0” of automation—which represents cars that are entirely controlled by human drivers—only 36% of respondents reported they would seek legal recourse. A vehicle considered “Level 3”—which would include a system that could take over the car in part, or for a short period of time, akin to Tesla’s autopilot mode—would be sued by 38% of respondents, with 55% reporting that they “did not know” if they would litigate in such a scenario. And an accident involving a vehicle registered as “Level 5,” or fully self-driving, would inspire 51% of those surveyed to seek a day in court.

Of those expressing the desire to sue a Level 5 car, members of Generation Z—those born between 1995 and 2004—were the most litigious-minded, with 62% saying they would seek legal recourse. Baby boomers (born 1946-1964) were the next-most open to the idea, at 53%, followed by Generation X (1965-1976) at 51%. Pre-boomers (born before 1946) polled at 50%, and finally, the most forgiving members were Generation Y (born 1977-1994), of whom only 47% said they would take the matter up in court.

Still, across all age groups, higher levels of automation also correlated with the willingness to wage a lengthier legal process—and to do so in the eye of the public, as opposed to other potential options given to participants, including several out-of-court settlement situations.

And unfortunately for automakers, another through-line seemed to emerge from the survey. Lawyers were also asked for their thoughts on the realities of trying such cases in the future as part of the report, with the analytical group all agreeing that the cases would only get more expensive to stage as the technology involved became more sophisticated. Hopefully for manufacturers, the pursuit of cars that drive themselves won’t drive the industry into the poorhouse.

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