Product-liability Law May Help New Automobile Safety Technology Find a Route Out of a Traffic Jam

Vehicles have continually become safer, primarily as a result of market demand. Car purchasers have long sought vehicles that have the newest and most effective safety mechanisms, whether they are anti-lock brakes, seatbelts or airbags. Despite manufacturers' interest in minimizing costs, they have consistently found value in yielding to customers' demands. One might assume that customer demands will remain the 'driving' force behind improved safety mechanisms for automobiles; however, it is not clear that this trend will continue.

Automobile manufacturers must engage in more complex cost-benefit calculations when deciding whether to implement autonomous vehicle technologies. Unlike passive mechanisms, autonomous vehicle technologies co-opt some portion of the drivers' decision-making. Adaptive Cruise Control, one example of an autonomous vehicle technology, uses proximity sensors to automatically respond to surrounding cars' changes in speed thereby preventing collisions and improving fuel efficiency.

A University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Transportation Studies report asserts that the "gradual shift in responsibility for automobile operation from the driver to the vehicle will lead to a similar shift in liability for crashes from the driver to the manufacturer."[1] Incentives have become misaligned when a car maker experiences trepidation over implementing a technology that makes car buyers safer due to their perception that it might increase their potential liability. Luckily, the same laws that worry manufacturers can be used to realign car buyers and makers' incentives.

While manufacturers claim that the uncertain liability has slowed autonomous vehicle technologies' implementation, manufacturers should be more concerned with the potential liabilities for their refusal to act. The standard of care that a manufacturer owes a car buyer is not a static concept. Rather, past technological advances have consistently and regularly built upon a minimal requirement in fulfilling their duty to exercise reasonable care in producing a vehicle. For example, windshields are not made with plate glass anymore; in 1919, Henry Ford realized the danger plate glass windshields posed and he decided that a newly developed technology of laminated glass would be better. This kind of technological innovation is now commonplace and a de facto requirement in car building.

Similarly, new autonomous vehicle technologies may drastically improve highway safety. Understanding these technologies' cost and effectiveness will be crucial in continuing the evolution of automobile safety. Moving forward manufacturers ought to focus on how their failure to utilize newly developed technologies may give rise to negligence claims for their unreasonable failure to prevent a risk. Product-liability law will play a large role in hastening the manufacturers' realization of this principle and their ultimate adoption of new safety-improving technologies.

[1] Nidhi Kalra et al., Liability and Regulation of Autonomous Vehicle Technologies, Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Berkeley, 22 (June 5, 2012)


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