Alter rules of liability

The most daunting question before the Georgia House committee on autonomous vehicles is probably who is liable if an autonomous car is involved in an accident.

Liability for car accidents in Georgia is based on a “negligence rule.” This means when an accident occurs, the hitting car is not automatically responsible and, to receive compensation, the injured party must show the driver of the hitting car was negligent, and the damages occurred as a result of that negligence. In situations involving a hitting autonomous vehicle, however, it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find negligence on the part of the vehicle’s owner or operator.

Unable to recover damages from the owner or operator of the autonomous vehicle, injured parties would be forced to sue the autonomous vehicle’s seller or manufacturer for damages under what is known as a “products liability” cause of action. The injured party would then bear the burden of showing the accident was caused as a result of some defect in the design or manufacturing of the autonomous vehicle.

Such lawsuits, however, are uphill and expensive battles that typically require the involvement of experts. Defending against such lawsuits is likewise burdensome and inevitably would result in the costs of such litigation being rolled over to consumers. This, in turn, would make autonomous vehicles more expensive, perhaps to the point that the technology may become unaffordable or only available in luxury cars — which would be a terrible shame, given the many expected benefits of widespread implementation of this technology.

Instead of going down that path, I suggest we change the liability regime in Georgia, at least with respect to autonomous vehicles, to what is known as a “no fault” rule. Under such a rule, the owner or operator of an autonomous vehicle involved in a car accident would be automatically responsible for any damages the car causes, and there would be no need to establish that he or she was negligent.

The advantages of this course of action are numerous. First, it would save victims of car accidents involving autonomous vehicles the copious amounts of time and money they would need to recover for their damages, not to mention the emotional toll. Second, it would avoid the need to drag manufacturers of autonomous vehicles to court every time an autonomous vehicle is involved in a fender bender. Third, this solution is simple, compatible with Georgia’s car insurance laws and easy to administer and carry out.

A “no fault” rule also would spread the costs of damages caused by autonomous vehicles over time and over a larger group of people, which would lead to lower autonomous vehicle prices and a rapid increase in road safety as the technology becomes commonplace.

In addition to the above recommendation, Georgia’s Legislature and regulators should avoid mistakes made elsewhere and refrain from imposing unnecessary restrictions on autonomous vehicle technology that would hinder its development and implementation.

Yaniv Heled is an assistant professor at Georgia State University College of Law.