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Tesla’s Self Driving Car Prompts Legal Questions

Tesla Motors is introducing new technology that allows cars to drive themselves. The automaker will be providing software updates to Tesla vehicle owners that will allow hands-free interstate driving. The technology will also allow car drivers to operate their cars on private property without a driver in the vehicle. Could this new technology result in more Los Angeles car accidents?

The self-driving and driverless technology will test the law as it applies to autonomous cars. In fact, the head of Tesla, Elon Musk, has been speaking with California regulators about the autonomous driving technology since the beginning of March. A deputy director from the Department of Motor Vehicles recently said that regulators are trying to understand what Tesla is planning to unveil. He said that California’s current autonomous vehicle regulations only allow for operation by specially trained drivers for testing purposes, and they do not address vehicle operation by normal drivers.

From a legal perspective, the most controversial part of Tesla’s technology is its “Fetch” mode, which lets the car drive itself without any occupants inside it to pick up the driver in a parking garage or parking lot. According to a law professor who teaches product liability law at the University of Richmond, it is not clear what party would be liable in civil and/or criminal court if a driverless car hits a person.

Sooner or later, one of Tesla’s self-driving cars will be involved in an accident. Only then will we be able to know how the courts will treat questions relating to civil liability. The owner of the vehicle may ultimately be liable if he or she activated the driverless function and negligently endangered others. Alternatively, Tesla may be culpable if defective engineering leads to a collision. Either way, it is certainly hoped that Tesla’s technology proves to be as safe — or safer — than human drivers in California.

Source: Wall Street Journal, “Regulators Have Hands Full With Tesla’s Plan for Hands-Free Driving,” Mike Ramsey, March. 27, 2015