Autonomous Car Liability

by William Mattar | September 21st, 2017

A law review article published in the Southern Methodist University Science and Technology Law Review makes the novel argument that “[l]aws governing canine ownership are a good model on which to base laws governing autonomous cars.”

While it may seem implausible to compare a sentient animal—a dog—to the motions, sensors and axels of an autonomous vehicle, the authors make a pretty compelling argument that two are analogous: “both dogs and autonomous cars think and act independent form their human owners, and these independent acts have similar consequences of inflicting personal injury or property damage.”

Recognizing that the law characterizes dogs, like computers, as chattels—a fancy word for personal property—the authors note that the doctrine “is invoked . . . to hold animal owners responsible for damage and injuries caused by their animals” through either strict liability imposed by statute, or the common law “one bite rule.”

Tracking the development of owner liability for canine aggression across various jurisdictions—which suggests a preferences for strict liability to the common law “one bite” rule—the authors note that the
‘body of law demonstrates that the imposition of strict liability is an effective method of assessing liability for autonomous creatures that can act without control by their owners, such as dogs, and can be equally effective in assessing liability for autonomous cars. ‘

The argument goes as follows: Because canine and autonomous cars “are similar in the purposes they serve”—according to the authors, “the service of humankind”—the justifications for imposing strict liability upon canine owners may also apply to autonomous car owners:
A dog provides companionship, assists disabled persons, hunters, and law enforcement, and provides protection. An autonomous car, like most machines, is similarly devoted to the service of mankind by providing transportation.

Based on these, among other, similarities, the authors argue that “[t]he justifications for imposing strict liability upon canine owners are equally applicable to autonomous cars.”

Should the fact that an item of personal property serves humankind—a quality that can be said of many products being produced today—give rise to strict liability against the owner of that personal property?