By: Mike Vetter

Numerous automobile and truck manufacturers and companies such as Uber and Lyft are trying to develop self-driving, autonomous, or significantly enhanced vehicles. Variations include occupied vehicles, following trailers, and completely unoccupied vehicles. Some manufacturers presently have in place a system to keep a vehicle within a lane of traffic based upon sensors and computer guidance that drive and verify the presence and general attention of a human front seat passenger.

There have been some accidents involving variations of these types of vehicles and today it was reported by the Associated Press that Uber was temporarily ceasing its autonomous vehicle testing due to an accident that is reported to have potentially killed a pedestrian.

Previously, a vehicle may have had systems such as antilock braking technology that enhanced the driver’s ability to stop and/or gave warnings of potential danger. However, vehicles are now stopping on their own, navigating, and steering on their own, and the potential exists for completely driverless vehicles.

Most people that purchase a computer become reasonably capable users of it. However, most do not understand how the computer actually functions. Further, these computers are generally inanimate objects.

People are now to the point of purchasing a one ton or more motorized computer that drives itself, putting them on the streets, and letting them proceed as programmed. In many instances, the owner will be a voluntary trusting occupant of the vehicle the computer controls.

Most states, including Tennessee, have a modified comparative fault system of liability. Is the owner of an autonomous vehicle negligent or otherwise liable for allowing the computer to drive if there is an accident?

A computer can have sensors in a 360-degree array, can process significantly more data at once than a person, and can do so more quickly. Arguably, the reason that computer technology is being used for this purpose in the first place is the belief that the computer is a better and safer driver than a person. If that is correct, is it not reasonable, and obviously not negligent, to allow the computer to drive?

Where is the negligence if it was reasonable and prudent to allow the computer to drive and the computer technology that was utilized reacted more quickly and more capable than a corresponding person could have or would have? Will we someday be at a point where it is negligent for a person to drive and where auto accidents are product liability claims or strict liability claims by statute? Computers are significantly better than people at performing many tasks. Driving is or may soon be one of those tasks.

Mike Vetter is the Chair of the firm’s Products Liability group. His practice is also concentrated in property and casualty litigation, construction, insurance coverage, bad faith, auto and uninsured motorist litigation and premises liability. He is a Rule 31 Civil Mediator. Mike is licensed to practice in Tennessee, Kentucky, California, and Missouri.

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