Driverless Cars: Should Accident Injury Lawyers Be Worried?
Charles Toutant, New Jersey Law Journal
Research into cars that drive themselves appears to be heading into the fast lane, carrying with it the promise of fewer deaths and injuries from car accidents.
That could also mean fewer cases for attorneys who handle automotive injury litigation, but opinions differ on how much of a threat driverless cars pose to lawyers’ livelihoods.
The volume of road accidents is widely predicted to decline as self-driving technology is adopted, although just when and how much is less clear. An October 2015 white paper from consultant KPMG on autonomous cars’ effect on the auto insurance industry predicted that the number of accidents per vehicle would decline 80 percent by 2040.
Automated systems in self-driving cars will reduce vulnerability to human error, the cause of most crashes, said Stephen Wu, an attorney representing technology companies in the autonomous vehicle industry.
“There will be a diminishment in the amount of work that’s being done for auto accidents. If I were in that field right now, I would be looking for alternatives. I feel a prudent practitioner in that field should be looking at related practice areas,” said Wu, of Silicon Valley Law Group in San Jose, California. “There are going to be people who are right now making a living representing people who are injured in auto accidents because of negligence of drivers on the road or products that fail or liability arising from failure of a government entity to make a road safe—I believe that work will decrease over time.”
Still, while lawsuits focusing on driver error will likely decline as more and more self-driving cars take to the roads, the new technology is not foolproof and accidents won’t be completely eliminated, according to Wu. And when a self-driving car is involved in a crash, passengers will need lawyers who can unravel the reason its complex systems failed, and potentially bring claims related to the vehicles’ sensors, software and data inputs, Wu said.
“You may see a shift from one group of plaintiffs’ lawyers to another group of plaintiffs’ lawyers. Nevertheless, you will see the aggregate number of cases reduced,” Wu said.
Still, auto accident lawyers who expand their knowledge of technological issues will benefit, he said.
The magnitude of the decline in injuries from auto crashes as autonomous cars are introduced is hard to predict, said Hilary Rowen, an insurance regulatory lawyer at Sedgwick in San Francisco who studies insurance issues related to self-driving cars.
The year 2020 is often mentioned as the date when self-driving technology will be ready for market, but Rowen said she’s skeptical and thinks that date will be pushed back. Cars are already being sold with more and more semi-autonomous features, such as lane departure warnings and automated parallel parking, and Rowen said she thinks the auto industry will “tiptoe up to (self-driving technology) gradually” rather than immediately jump to completely self-driving cars.
And whenever autonomous cars do become available, they will share the roads with human-operated vehicles for the foreseeable future, given that the average age of vehicles on American roads is 11 years, according to Rowen, who is the American Bar Association’s tort trial and insurance practice section observer to the Uniform Law Commission Study Committee on Self-Driving Cars.
Rowen is “skeptical that the most optimistic projections [for accident reduction] will materialize in anything less than a 40-year projection,” but she nonetheless expects “a significant reduction in bodily injury frequency and severity and in property frequency.”
That said, body damage to self-driving cars will be especially costly to repair, she said.
When self-driving cars do take to the roads in large numbers, Rowen said she foresees a short-term bump in suits over “novel litigation and causation issues.”