Civil Liability and Autonomous Vehicles

Emanuela Maio (Università di Parma)


This work is the result of an in-depth reflection on new elements of tort law, and deals with liability when the accident is caused by an autonomous vehicle and the following damages in economic terms. It reports the contents of a lecture given at the School of Higher Education on the Future of the Automobile for Smart Mobility under the Motor Vehicle University of Emilia Romagna (MUNER), which focused on key aspects of responsibility. The starting question is: who is liable when an accident caused by an autonomous car occurs? The theme of the school was the impact of evolving technology on legal problems which urgently require solutions. The author begins with a reconstruction of the legal framework in force first in Europe and also in Italy on the autonomous vehicle and distinguishes each level of autonomy. This is followed by an explanation of the different theories that could be applied to the problem as a solution, ie from defective product liability to compliant product liability in Germany and the United States. The focus is on the new dimension of liability when the link between behavior and event is broken. It discusses the widely recognized problem of whether there can be non-personal civil liability outside the cases specified by legislation. In the case of new technologies in autonomous vehicles, the problem is no longer that of identifying the responsible party, but identifying the perpetrator of the event and the party which controls the perpetrator and is thus the real responsible party. The attention then shifts to the product rather than the event, although as we see below, different legal systems specify varying solutions. In order to have a clear picture of the problem it is necessary to clarify exactly what an autonomous vehicle is and how tort law is built up. Once these two points are clear, the relationship between them in the case of an accident is described. The research method is based on the construction of tort law, levels of autonomy of vehicles and case law. With reference to case law, it is important to emphasize that there are different solutions which reflect on the Tesla case. This in fact is proof that there is still no single legislative solution for this new frontier. The work consists of three steps, the first on the meaning of autonomous vehicle and the second on liability when an accident is caused by an autonomous vehicle. The third phase focuses on proposing a solution, namely the recognition of a legal personality for autonomous vehicles similar to that of private entities, using the analogia iuris method. Recognition of the legal personality of self-driving vehicles would also entail the creation of assets for them, separate from the manufacturer’s assets, as is the case for private entities (legal persons). The creation of an asset fund for autonomous vehicles would solve the problem of damage compensation when an accident occurs. It would also enable there to be an insurance policy for which the autonomous vehicle would always be the owner. Today there is only English Trinity Lane insurance, which has a ‘driverless mode’ clause, but it only covers certain types of damage linked to a defective product. The above proposal for direct liability of the autonomous vehicle could guarantee full compensation. Recognition of autonomous (self-driving) vehicles as legal entities would be a way of bringing the legal system into harmony following its underlying principles.

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