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John Villasenor, Products Liability and Driverless Cars: Issues and Guiding Principles for Legislation (Apr. 24, 2014) (Brookings Institute) (full-text).


This paper provides a discussion of how products liability law will impact autonomous vehicles, and provides a set of guiding principles for legislation that should — and that should not — be enacted. In some very specific, narrow respects, state-level legislative clarity regarding autonomous vehicle liability can be beneficial. Vehicle manufacturers that sell non-autonomous vehicles, for example, should not be liable for defects in third-party vehicle automation systems installed in the aftermarket. But broad new liability statutes aimed at protecting the manufacturers of autonomous vehicle technology are unnecessary.

The legal precedents established over the last half a century of products liability litigation will provide manufacturers of autonomous vehicle technology with a very strong set of incentives to make their [[product]s as safe as possible. In the overwhelming majority of cases, they will succeed. However, despite these efforts, there will inevitably be some accidents attributable in whole or in part to defects in future vehicle automation systems. While this will raise complex new liability questions, there is no reason to expect that the legal system will be unable to resolve them.

In short, the liability concerns raised by vehicle automation are legitimate and important. But they can be addressed without delaying consumer access to the many benefits that autonomous vehicles will provide.