It’s hard to dispute that autonomous vehicles – in some form – are the future of the automotive industry. From Tesla to Google to Uber, numerous companies across the nation have had their hands in headline-grabbing projects. Fully driverless cars are currently undergoing testing in a number of states. Wisconsin may be next.

Last month, Governor Scott Walker took the first step toward allowing driverless cars on Wisconsin roads. A newly formed steering committee will provide recommendations on how to oversee testing and pave the way for regulating driverless cars.

A new direction in the automotive world

Wisconsin has historically been the heartbeat of the nation’s automotive industry. Driverless cars, however, are in many ways more a product of Silicon Valley-type tech-heads than Henry Ford.

Although one of the goals of driverless technology is to reduce traffic fatalities, that’s far from a sure thing. Taking the human out of the equation does eliminate dangers such as distractions and drunk driving. However, safe driving involves countless variables. In some situations, there’s simply no substitute for flesh-and-blood human judgment.

Weighing the risks

With any new technology comes risks, and driverless cars are no exception. It may take decades of fine-tuning to iron out all the unforeseen hiccups and hazards.

In the meantime, when accidents do occur, they’re bound to raise challenging legal questions such as:

  • Whos ultimately at fault when driverless systems malfunction? Obviously not the driver. Instead, liability will likely shift to auto manufacturers, software designers and perhaps the companies that deploy driverless vehicles. Car accident cases will become more akin to product liability claims – which means heightened stakes and increased complexity.
  • How do you define negligence in the context of a machine? Negligence ordinarily centers on how a reasonable person would act under similar circumstances. But does this mean plaintiffs will have to prove that a human driver in the same situation would have made a better decision? Or, given their capabilities, should driverless cars be held to a higher standard?
  • How can you know if the crash was preventable? Some malfunctions may be obvious, but others may involve numerous factors such as weather conditions, road design or infrastructure issues. Sorting out culpability in these cases could come down to guesswork.

Of course, there are upsides to driverless cars, too. The technology certainly has the potential to save lives. And crash investigations may become far easier – and more detailed – due to the wealth of data stored by autonomous vehicles.

As in other aspects of life, the law will have to evolve to keep pace with ever-changing technology.