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Product Liability Law for Self-Driving Cars

Dani Alexis Ryskamp, J.D.

Written by
— Updated on August 27, 2021

Product Liability Law for Self-Driving Cars


Autonomous vehicles pose a number of liability-related questions, reaching into areas of tort, insurance, and even criminal law. One of the largest questions facing the self-driving vehicle revolution is: Who is responsible if a hidden defect in an autonomous vehicle causes a crash?

We already know that autonomous vehicles don’t always perform perfectly; the February 2016 accident in which a self-driving Google car crashed with a city bus provides evidence that driverless technology can make mistakes. Since accidents can occur, it is reasonable to assume lawsuits will follow, particularly in situations in which a human driver would not have made the same mistake.

Here, we look at key points of vehicle product liability law today and the demands autonomous vehicle claims may place on existing case law and regulatory schemes.

Driver-Required Vehicles and Product Liability: Where We Stand Today

Product liability surrounding motor vehicles is an established area of law, although the types of claims available and the elements of each can vary from state to state. State consumer protection laws can also affect product liability claims within the state’s borders.

Generally speaking, a product liability claim will scrutinize either a product’s manufacturing, its design, or the warnings, warranties, or guarantees communicated to its end-user. Each case will focus on one or more “defects” in one of these three areas. It will look at whether the defect was “unreasonably dangerous,” whether it was hidden from the user, and how that defect caused injuries.

In the U.S., references to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) abound in motor vehicle product liability cases. The FMVSS cover nearly every aspect of existing vehicles and holds manufacturers to certain safety standards. Consequently, some commentators place great emphasis on the role of the FMVSS and other state and federal safety standards in the regulation of autonomous vehicles.

Key Risks Added by Autonomous Vehicle Technology

Examples of alleged defects giving rise to vehicle product liability claims abound – from the exploding Ford Pinto cases of the 1970s to Toyota’s recent challenges with the defective Takata airbag inflators present in thousands of the company’s vehicles sold worldwide.

Case law on defects specific to autonomous vehicle technology, however, is scarce. Information from testing and accidents that have already occurred can shed some light on the most likely sources of product liability claims when it comes to driverless vehicles.

The primary feature distinguishing the autonomous vehicle from the non-autonomous one is the autonomous vehicle’s control system and software. Control systems typically consist of LIDAR arrays and sensors, which the vehicle uses to “see” its surroundings. The impressions from these systems are used by onboard computers to make driving decisions, which are communicated to the vehicle for execution.

It’s not unrealistic, therefore, to assume that the first product liability cases involving driverless vehicles will focus on defects in the LIDAR systems’ manufacturing (such as weak mounting brackets), design (such as sensor placement resulting in “blind spots”), or instructions and warnings (such as a clear explanation of conditions in which the LIDAR may fail).

Software defects pose a potentially fertile ground for autonomous vehicle product liability lawsuits. For instance, software designs that depend on inadequate sensor data (either in terms of content or transmission speed) or that fail to perform safe ordinary driving maneuvers may quickly become the subject of litigation. Inadequate pattern recognition, collision avoidance algorithms, or human-computer coordination may also lead to lawsuits.

Another rising concern is data security. A 2015 Wired article described a situation in which a hacker managed to gain control of a non-autonomous Jeep, shutting the vehicle down while it was in traffic. The Jeep in question was a non-self-driving vehicle, but the same risks may be present for autonomous vehicle software.

In addition to autonomous-technology-specific claims, driverless vehicles will likely continue to be vulnerable to the same types of claims that non-autonomous vehicles are. These include product liability cases focusing on mechanical or physical defects, electrical system defects, or software defects.

As with any safety feature, autonomous vehicle safety presents a cost-benefit analysis for auto companies: How much is “too much” to spend for minimal benefit? For those injured by driverless vehicle defects and their attorneys, however, even a small cut may be too deep.

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