A recent article by attorney Matthew J. Trainor published in the Indiana Lawyer brings to light the inevitability of hands-free driving technology in consumer vehicles and the complete lack of laws and regulations ready to deal with this innovation. While it still may seem like self-driving cars are reserved for cartoons and science fiction movies, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Infiniti, Volvo and other car manufacturers currently have vehicles in production with at least some degree of hands-free driving technology. Current features range from parallel parking to high-speed interstate lane changing. The article notes that Tesla Motors currently manufactures a vehicle with an autopilot feature that will operate the vehicle “on the open road and in rush hour traffic.”
The vast majority of states, including Missouri and Illinois, have no laws covering hands-free driving and only New York specifically requires the human operator to keep one hand on the wheel while driving. While other states have proposed regulations for this technology, few have actually been codified into law. Notably, without any laws or regulations prohibiting this technology, manufacturers are free to act as they see fit when determining when various features are ready for use by the general public. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is conducting a study to develop recommendations for new state laws, but has only issued guidelines to be considered by states when developing their laws and regulations.
The article aptly points out that in the absence of regulations, liability for accidents involving hands-free driving technology will shift from negligence towards product liability claims. This will raise a host of new liability questions, including an operator’s duty to monitor the vehicle while using hands-free technology. Simple car accidents could soon involve theories under product liability law (design defects, manufacturing defects, failure to warn or instruct), as well as breach of contract and warranty claims. Obviously this would add significant complexity to what have been characterized in the past as “simple” car accident cases.