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Accidents with self-driving cars not a worry, yet

Hearing all the talk about self-driving cars in recent weeks, it serves as a reminder. They are not here yet, but they are coming. Indeed, Florida is one of only a few states that have a law on the books that makes it legal to operate autonomous vehicles on state roads. And under the aegis of that law, the state’s Department of Transportation is working to establish Florida as a leader in developing the technology.

But just because the law makes it possible doesn’t mean that it’s about to become a reality tomorrow. Industry experts acknowledge that a single model of a fully self-driving car probably isn’t going to be available for years at least. When it does hit the market, few people will be able to afford it. In the meantime, there are questions that need to be answered about liability when such a vehicle gets into an accident.

Developers, proponents and analysts seem to generally agree that full vehicle automation will mean safer streets and highways. They say the computer-managed devices will reduce the number of accidents and the number of serious injuries that result. But accidents will happen, so who will be held accountable?

One view supported by a Brookings Institute study is that there will be move from personal liability insurance on the owners of the vehicles to products liability coverage to hold manufacturers responsible for failures that result in injury or death.

But while the fully autonomous car is not yet here, that doesn’t mean semi-autonomous vehicles aren’t out and about. There are cars out there now that can park, maintain a lane, avoid a crash and adjust their speed all on their own. They still have human masters.

When accidents happen, if the technology is to blame, injury claims on the basis of product liability may be warranted. However, at this stage of the game, we suspect it’s more likely that human negligence or recklessness is going to be the more significant factor.