I’ve been writing about the law of driverless cars since 2011. For more than forty years, the general rule for when a car was defectively designed is whether the manufacturer met “a reasonable duty of care in the design of its vehicle consonant with the state of the art to minimize the effect of accidents.” Larsen v. General Motors Corporation, 391 F.2d 495 (8th Cir. 1968).
Volvo got a lot of free press last year when it said it would accept legal responsibility for crashes involving self-driving cars, but, as always, the fine print said otherwise:
Volvo also told the BBC it would only accept liability for an accident if it was the result of a flaw in the car’s design. “If the customer used the technology in an inappropriate way then the user is still liable,” said Mr Coelingh. “Likewise if a third party vehicle causes the crash, then it would be liable.”
In other words, Volvo agreed to nothing at all. Volvo simply agreed it would be held responsible in the same circumstances under which it would already be held responsible: when there was a flaw in the car’s design.
That aspect raises an obvious question: how should driverless cars be designed? Most of the media attention has been devoted towards philosophical questions like “the Trolley Problem.”