Article Title

The Black Box Solution to Autonomous Liability

Publication Title

Washington University Law Review


Autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars, have the potential to revolutionize modern transportation through increased productivity and safety. Today, industry leaders in both automotive manufacturing and technology development are engaged in the design and production of these vehicles. Representatives from these companies have already successfully lobbied a number of state legislatures to permit the testing and use of autonomous vehicles.

While the prospect of a mass market in autonomous vehicles is exciting for both consumers and manufacturers, the use of autonomous vehicles implicates novel legal issues. For example, when a car drives itself, who is responsible when it crashes? Should the manufacturer who designed the car be held liable? Or the driver who directs the vehicle? To solve this problem, I argue that all autonomous vehicles should be required to carry an Event Data Recorder (“EDR”) to monitor and record data about vehicle functioning. This technology is analogous to the Flight Data Recorder (“FDR”), colloquially known as a “black box,” found on airplanes. An FDR records and transmits information about an airplane’s functionality, and this information helps investigators determine whether the cause of a crash was human error or mechanical failure. The same would apply to autonomous vehicles. Given the possibility of manufacturers being held liable for vehicle crashes, the use of EDR data would limit financial liability in tort claims and increase manufacturer willingness to develop autonomous technology.

However, as with the collection of any personal data, there are privacy issues that must also be examined. EDRs contain personal data, such as the geographic location of the vehicle and the owner’s driving patterns. The collection and use of this data may be harmful to an individual’s privacy rights. As a result, I argue that vehicle owners should be considered the sole owner of EDR data and no data may be shared for any commercial purpose without affirmative consent of the owner.