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Google's robot cars



Robot cars have the potential to save thousands of lives and double highway capacity. But it's hard to imagine them ever becoming commercially available without some tremendous change in existing law. Current traffic laws require the technology to be able to be overridden by a human driver. And the American legal system's poor track record in sudden-acceleration cases suggests that trial lawyers and juries are often going to blame the technology and the deep pocket in the event of human error. Because a Google cannot collect millions of dollars for each of the lives they save through robot cars, but will be assessed that amount (in attorneys' fees alone) every time a driver of a robot car kills or injures someone, product-liability law may well make the roads far less safe in the short- to medium-term. Even if liability concerns merely delay the technology five years (and I think the effect will be larger than that), we're talking tens of thousands of lives that will be lost because of our current justice system.

Note that federal preemption comes into play here. Clear-cut federal regulatory standards that preempt state tort law could break the Gordian knot; but under trial lawyers' and the Obama administration's upside-down view of federalism, a single state's tort law could dictate the national marketplace for these vehicles. A manufacturer cannot be protected by one state's tort reform, because they're still potentially liable if a driver takes the vehicle into a different state with a more backward law. This problem that is only going to get worse if the Supreme Court adopts the Obama DOJ's position in Williamson v. Mazda Motor.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy
rmangual@manhattan-institute.org

Katherine Lazarski
Manhattan Institute
klazarski@manhattan-institute.org

 

Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.