We live in a transitional time where new technology is radically changing our economies and lives at a seemingly breakneck speed. The legal industry is not immune to these changes, from the automation of our offices and practices, to the revolutionary evolution of transport technology and the legal and insurance regimes that underlay it. In particular the innovations that are steadily leading to self-driving vehicles will vastly change the way we move from place to place, receive goods, and transport products, as well as the way in which we perceive ownership and liability. Naysayers will point to recent self-driving vehicle tests that have resulted in human injury and use these to state that the technology will never work. The better question would be: what percentage of injuries or death have resulted from self-driving cars to date, given the thousands of kilometers of testing done as a whole, and how does this compare to people driven vehicles throughout the same time frame? Whether the technology becomes safe enough and broadly adopted in 5, 10, or 20 years, major auto manufactures, tech giants, and ride sharing companies are investing vast sums to adopt and perfect this technology because they are betting it will be revolutionary and lead to vast profits. The number one concern will be safety for humans, and whether we can truly trust an integrated driverless network of vehicles.
How will insurance and the law adapt? Companies like Uber have already secured insurance policies for their drivers for example, but this is just the first step in a company like Uber’s likely journey to fleets of driverless vehicles picking up people and transporting goods. How will the law change when a network of vehicles without human operation is in existence and a person’s negligence is no longer responsible for an accident? Insurance, governments and the law historically have been reactionary to technological change. Accidents in the future will likely be governed more by products liability in terms of software or hardware malfunction, and this will vastly change the scope of personal lawsuits for damages. Another factor to consider is that when vehicles operate on a vast integrated network, the incidence of accidents may drop considerably. This may be a major boon to society with more efficient transportation, lower health care costs, and hopefully much reduced insurance premiums, which may benefit many, but will inevitably cost some their jobs. Indeed, the Industrial Revolution in Europe and North America two centuries ago created societal upheaval and in one of many examples of change cost many guildsmen, seamstresses, and tailors their livelihoods. One such worker would previously spend days producing a single garment, but within a few years of the revolution, a worker with the help of machines could now produce dozens of garments in far less time. The result: retail clothing and the fashion industry, and a vast numbers of jobs that never existed previously. In other words, the next automation revolution is already happening, and with great change will likely come great upheaval, and as lawyers we had best be ready to be nimble and adapt.