Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Driverless Cars in the Fast Lane: The Legal Questions

The big auto companies are speeding up testing to get driverless cars on American roads.

In fact, Ford is hoping to make it happen by the year 2021.

Due to such a quick timetable, the Ohio Judicial Conference hosted a court technology discussion featuring expert Dr. Laura Liptai, a professor at the University of California Davis.

“About 80-85 percent of errors are human-related so the autonomous vehicles, if we can take those errors out of the equation, we can dramatically reduce the number of fatalities on the roadways in the United States,” Dr. Liptai said.

But a recent incident in Tempe, Arizona, has raised doubts. In March, a self-driving car operated by Uber struck and killed a pedestrian.

It appears to be the first time a computer-driven automobile has killed a person by force of impact. The car was traveling at 38 mph.

“There are some situations that I’m sure juries are going to deal with,” said Judge Stephanie Domitrovich, of Erie, Pennsylvania, who spoke at the conference.

“In that case, the person (pedestrian) was dressed in black, the person was taking a bicycle over four lanes, not in a crosswalk. All of those issues are liability issues that judges and juries are going to have to deal with.”

It may come soon.

The so-called Self Drive Act is awaiting consideration by the full U.S. Senate to affirm the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration’s authority to regulate driverless cars.

Where do local and state laws fit in?

Judge Domitrovich said state laws need to be created, as do regulations and insurance guidelines.

“The world of autonomous vehicles will make our lives easier and it’s going to make our lives, as judges and court personnel, harder because we are going to have to fill in the gaps where the legislature may not have expected something to happen. But we can do it, we can handle it. We can do a great job,” Judge Domitrovich said.

The American Bar Association says the use of such vehicles will span various areas of the law including torts, insurance, privacy, data security, transportation, and communications administrative law.

But the speakers at the Ohio conference, as well as academics and car designers, say none of these issues are likely to prevent self-driving cars from hitting the road, because current liability laws already provide some guidance.

“To put these vehicles on the road as soon as possible will save more lives. All of this is good," Judge Domitrovich said.