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Can One Driverless Car Change Auto Liability?

By William Vogeler, Esq. | Last updated on

Even one driverless car can improve traffic conditions, according to a new report.

Because human response times vary, traffic flow changes like a snake twists to move along the ground. But with an autonomous vehicle, the experimental data shows, the flow becomes more regulated and actually improves with speed.

The phenomenon marks another point in the evolution of driverless cars that will change everything about automobiles, including how to address liability for accidents.

The Phantom Traffic Jam

In the famous 2008 experiment on the "Mathematical Society of Traffic Flow," researchers learned that human beings cause traffic jams for no apparent reason. No accident, no hazardous conditions, no bottlenecks; they just slow down and speed up because drivers' response times differ.

But in a 2017 recreation of the experiment that inserted one driverless car, scientists saw that traffic became steadier. One automated car regulated the flow of the rest of the vehicles. The authors of the study say that it is a "paradigm shift in traffic management."

It will also affect legislators, courts, lawyer, and insurers as they try to get a handle on how to assess liability for traffic accidents. Who will pay for them?

"To prove that an automated driving system performed unreasonably, an injured plaintiff would likely need to show either that a human driver would have done better or that another, actual or theoretical, automated driving system would have done better," law professor Bryant Walker Smith told the Washington Post.

DUI's No More?

Tiger Woods would have been in a better place today if he had a driverless car this past weekend. The golf pro was arrested for driving under the influence, but that wouldn't have happened if he weren't driving.

In the driverless future, the same will be true for speeding tickets and other violations that can only be ascribed to a driver capable of negligence. The liability shift will go to the manufacturer or a software developer.

In car crash cases, Smith says lawyers will focus on whether the automated system performed reliably. A key question will be, could a reasonable change in the system have prevented the crash?

The effect of driverless cars on traffic flow will also change the liability focus, as municipalities look at the need for traffic lights and other engineering issues in regulating traffic.

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