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Understanding the legal landscape for driverless cars

Understanding the legal landscape for driverless cars

By Katie Minogue

Personal Injuries 


Driverless cars. For some this still conjures up images of KITT in Knight Rider (Gen Y – you’ll have to Google it).

Like it or not, the future is here with autonomous features such as adaptive cruise control, auto lane changing, emergency braking and reverse self-parking already in operation in many newer model cars and development continues apace towards fully autonomous vehicles.

With at least 90% of car accidents caused by human error, there is no doubt that driverless cars will be safer than human drivers – they don’t get drunk, tired, experience road rage or get distracted by a Facebook post. But are we regulating the technology safely and responsibly, ensuring that vulnerable road users are protected?

1. Who is in charge of the wheel?

Various legislative schemes require a human to be in control of the wheel to meet the definition of ‘driving’.  If a car, operating in autonomous mode, caused an injury to another driver, pedestrian or cyclist, it is arguable that they would not be covered by personal injury insurance schemes like the TAC.

2. Whose data?

How data is collected and used will be paramount in how readily consumers accept driverless cars. As the American Association of Justice notes, AVs collect data on “how fast we drive, where we stop to shop, the number of passengers, our texts and emails, our contact lists and the music we listen to.”i What choices will consumers have when it comes to protecting the privacy of their data?

3. Cyber terrorism

The increased reliance on wireless communications and telematics also presents issues of cyber security. In the US, the military has conducted ‘hacking’ trials on driverless cars, in which hackers successfully completed tasks such as operating the boot and windshield wipers, engaging the brakes, and turning off the engine.ii Data security and protection will need to be closely considered in the rollout of the technology.

4. Programming to kill?

Imagine a scenario where a driverless car is faced with two options: don’t swerve and kill a child running across the road, or swerve into a wall and kill the occupant. What if there were ten children?  In a more complex situation, if the technology can differentiate between a cyclist wearing a helmet and a cyclist without one, should the car hit the person with the helmet because the injury risk might be less, or is this penalising the person who took extra precautions?

Autonomous vehicles are no longer restricted to ‘Blade Runner’ type visions of a dystopian future. The challenge for law makers is in staying abreast of the rapidly changing technological environment. A proactive, front-seat approach will be needed to ensure that driverless cars seamlessly transition into the new transport system, enabling a drastic reduction in road accidents, injuries and fatalities.


Katie Minogue, senior associate, Maurice Blackburn Lawyers

i. Christopher B. Dolan, ‘Self-driving Cars and the Bumpy Road Ahead’ American Association for Justice, (February 2016)

ii. Robert H. Huey, ‘Before Driverless Cars, Questions’ Dashboard Insights (18 December 2014)


Want to find out more? Register for the LIV's Personal Injury Intensive on 21 March where Katie Minogue will be speaking on the above issues and more. The Intensive will also cover trends in expert evidence, ethical considerations for personal injury lawyers and how to maximise client satisfaction in personal injury practice.

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