California Self Driving Car Legislation Passes Senate

May 25, 2012

The first step in having self driving cars in California has passed a hurdle by being approved by the the Senate. California Senate Bill 1298, introduced by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima). The bill authorizes testing of the self-driving vehicle. The industry leader of the self-driving technology is none other than Google. In case you have been living in a cave without internet access, Google is a technology company based in Mountain View, California. The self-driving car is a departure from Google's focus, but shows they definitely have their eye towards the future.

Although self-driving Google cars are very exciting, our Modesto car accident law offices are more concerned about the liability aspects of such a car. This article focuses on the legal issues of this technology. Who is liable for an accident involving a self driving car?

Negligence
Self driving cars will still have the ability of having the operator take over the controls. So if the other driver was negligent, for example there was human error as the cause of the accident, then clearly the injured party can recover for their injury. Human error is the number one cause for auto accidents in California and the rest of the United States. But what if the accident in one of these self-driving cars was not human error, but manufacture defect? Who is liable then?

Products Liability

Negligence Theory (OLD)
Many years ago the law was that you had to have privity of contract to sue for a defect in a product. For example if you were in Modesto, California and you purchased a ACME lawnmower from the local hardware store and that lawnmower exploded and injured to you, then you could not sue ACME lawnmower company. Why? Because you did not contract directly with ACME to buy the mower, you bought it from a third party. Interesting right? Well now you can forget that concept because it is no longer the way things are done.

The first change in the law came with the famous New York case n the case MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co. (1916) 217 N.Y. 382, 111 N.E. 1050. In MacPherson, the plaintiff bought a Buick car from the local dealer. When driving the car's wood wheel broke and obvioulsy made the car wreck. MacPherson sued the manufacter of the car, Buick. Buick argued that there was no privity of contract directly with MacPherson and therefore they could not be sued. That argument was rejected not only did the court rule that Buick had a duty to inspect the wheel, which they didn't, but they were liable for the damages caused by their defective product, i.e the Buick car. Because of this case you can sue a manufacture of a product even though you did not buy it directly from the manufacturer. In fact, if you are a third party injured because of a defective product you can sue as well.

Strict Liability
Under MacPherson the plaintiff (the injured person) still had to prove negligence on the part of the manufacturer in order to recover damages. Fast forward from 1916 to 1963 and travel from New York to California. The California Supreme Court, in the case Greenman v. Yuba Power Products, Inc. (1963) 59 Cal. 2d 57, removed the requirement that the plaintiff prove negligence in order to recover damages from a manufacturer of a defective product. This case welcomed the theory of strict liability for products produced. That means that if someone is injured by a defective product the manufacturer can be found liable even if the manufacturer was not negligent in producing the product.

Liability Exceptions
The California legislature has not decided whether to exempt manufacturers of liability for cars produced that are self-driving cars. The most recent legislation at the time of this article is California Senate Bill 1298, introduced by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima). The bill authorizes testing of the self-driving vehicle. Our neighbor to the east, Nevada has issued such an exemption of manufacturer liability. In Nevada for example the "operator" of the car is liable for damages caused by the self-driving car. The "operator" is liable even when it was not operator error that caused the accident. The "operator" is the person who commands or tells the car to drive.

Conclusion
It is still an open question as to whether the manufacturer of a self-driving car would be liable for an accident caused by product liability. It is almost certain that an exclusion to liability will be debated by the California Legislature, but it is unsure how the legislature will vote on that issue. Even if strict liability remains the products liability standard in California, Google or other companies will continue to develop this technology because the good from the technology will outweigh the bad. Human error will virtually be eliminated from the equation, which contribute for almost all car accidents currently. This technology will cut down on accidents and on balance it is better than what we have now.