Who's to blame if Google's autonomous vehicles get in accidents?

The world is changing rapidly these days, and sometimes the law doesn't maintain the pace of those developments. We all appreciate technological changes that help keep us safer, of course, but sometimes we forget to check into how those technologies might affect our legal rights, don't we?

When it comes to safe travel on our nation's roadways, many engineers have long dreamed of an autonomous vehicle that could navigate local streets and freeways with ease and safety. Robots, the theory goes, are likely to be much safer drivers than humans. After all, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 94 percent of traffic accidents are caused by human error. A self-driving car obeys all traffic rules, senses potential collisions and avoids them, and never gets distracted or impatient.

As it turns out, Google's self-driving car appears to fit the bill. The self-driving vehicles have been in production for six years, but only for internal testing. Last month, Google announced that some models were entering real-world testing; autonomous vehicles with safety drivers on board are out and about on the streets of Google's home town.

As Google's new monthly report on the real-world tests reveals, the autonomous vehicles have performed exceedingly well. Combining autonomous and manual driving, the vehicles have logged more than 1.8 million miles on test tracks and local roads so far. How many accidents? Twelve, says Google, and all of them were minor.

"Not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident," Google crowed.

The fact that the cars have been so accident-free is great news. It may be excellent news that those accidents that occurred weren't caused by product defects or unexpected dangers.

What's hard to know, however, is just how accurate Google's assertions may be. In a testing environment, it's critical to candidly and frankly assess whether the cars are accident-prone. No one is suggesting that Google isn't doing so internally, but companies have been known to puff up their results when reporting them to the public.

In the years ahead, drivers are likely to flock to Google's cars, and there will almost certainly be accidents involving those cars. Will Google's assertion that their prototypes were never at fault come up as a defense to liability? Only time will tell.



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