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Who is liable if a driverless truck gets into an accident?

Several companies are making strides in designing and testing driverless semi-trucks. One company, late last year (now owned by Uber) famously operated a driverless truck across the country to make a Budweiser delivery (the truck was taken over by a human operator when it exited the freeway). The proliferation of driverless trucks seems only a few years away. But, in this new world, who is responsible for driverless trucks? Who is responsible for injuries?

Under a traditional negligence theory, the driver is responsible for the operation of a truck. But, the Department of Transportation introduced a new regulation that defines the computer as the "operator" of a vehicle. In that scenario, do you sue the computer? Can you even do that?

The basic effect of this rule is to shift the tort theory away from negligence and into products liability. If the computer is held responsible, you can sue any entity responsible for the design, manufacture, sale, and transportation of that computer. You probably think that this is good because it allows victims to recover from more defendants and forces the entire system to become safer to avoid liability.

But, proving products liability cases are notoriously difficult and far harder than traditional negligence. The shift in legal theories could impose substantial burdens on victims who are now forced to sue major companies to seek compensation.

Additionally, a few court cases have further divided the law. In cases involving driver-assisted programs (for instance, Tesla's Pilot), the courts have held the driver and computer jointly liable for accidents. This means that victims can recover against the driver (under negligence) and the computer (under products liability). While this is good for victims, it places huge burdens on drivers who may have to defend a cross-action that is brought by the manufacturer of the computer.

As illustrated above, the introduction of a new technology can significantly upend long-standing rules that people take for granted. If you were injured in a trucking accident with a driverless vehicle, you should contact a lawyer. Fighting and investigating these cases is cutting edge and you don't want to leave anything to chance.

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