From left: Daniel Crandall, Frank Cahoon, his father Frank Cahoon Sr., his mother Dr. Vera Wade.

By Frank Wade Cahoon

Cahoon is a 2019 graduate of Narrows High School who will be attending the University of Virginia this fall. This was the winning entry in an essay contest sponsored by the Crandall and Katt law firm in Roanoke.

The last several decades have marked the arrival of countless fascinating technological advancements. Some of these remarkable inventions, such as the introduction of social media, virtual reality, and the iPhone have looked to improve quality of life. However, the last several years have also witnessed the introduction of more controversial advancements, such as genetic modification (CRISPR) and the self-driving car. The latter of the two has been championed by major companies such as Tesla and Google and has marked not only the beginning of what looks to be a fully-automated era, but also a liability nightmare for the owners and manufacturers of each car.

The unease surrounding the creation of self-driving cars is understandable, however. Beyond the obvious concerns that follow a robotic presence taking control of your vehicle, early users of the technology may have to confront an incredibly sparse legal playing field; in other words, there is little to no legal precedent concerning self-driving cars. As a result, the first several cases that revolve around said vehicles will be interesting, to say the least (and will probably affect rulings for years to come). Several key questions come to mind, such as the issue regarding who might be liable in the case of an accident. Where would the blame fall? As it turns out, the blame could fall in several directions — towards the driver, the manufacturer, or the developer of the software controlling the car.

In my opinion, the result of cases such as these will depend on the labeling of the vehicle; there are currently five levels of autonomy, that range from “driver-assisting” to truly driverless. Manufacturers would do well to limit their labeling to “driver-assisting,” which would serve the dual-purpose of distancing them from legal liability and encouraging users to maintain a greater level of awareness when “driving.”

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