Photo courtesy of Flickr

Photo courtesy of Flickr

By Jerry Mooney

New technology and laws are changing the world of liability. It has been a major concern of legislators that legalized marijuana will open a Pandora’s box regarding driving and liability. Simultaneously, autonomous driving cars are forcing themselves onto our roads before legislators can wrap their brains around all of the implications.

On one hand, it seems that the autonomous driving cars could eventually solve the issue of marijuana DUIs in respective states. Instead of getting high and operating a vehicle, a buzzed commuter could hand over the keys to a robot who could safely pilot the passenger to his or her destination. This makes sense, because unless the robot is Bender from Futurama is drinking in the driver’s seat, it will be sober and capable. But it adds the question, where does the liability land if it is shifted from the driver?

In Colorado, for example, it is legal to consume marijuana, but it is not legal to drive afterwards if their blood levels contain 5 nanograms of THC. But if you have a self driving vehicle, are under the influence and have an accident, what are the legal implications? Currently, there is no allowance for fully autonomous driving, so a car must have a pilot and the pilot must be engaged, at least periodically.

But companies like Tesla and Uber are pushing the envelope regarding autonomous vehicles and soon we will have the option of robot chauffeurs, as Americans become more and more receptive to relinquishing the driver’s seat. Then the question becomes more important. And this becomes particularly muddled when we bring in an additional party, like Uber. If a robot Uber, owned by a person and happens to be a Tesla model, takes a high passenger on a fare and is involved in an accident, who pays?

The importance of this future reality must be considered now, so that we can be out in front of the issue instead of a continuum of incident and reaction. The good news is that since legalization, traffic fatalities in Colorado are at near record lows. But there is still the issue, how do we prosecute a situation where an autonomous vehicle was piloted by someone under the influence of marijuana? Do we applaud the fact that they used a robot driver or do we hold them responsible for being behind the wheel? And if there is an accident, is it the car’s fault (manufacturer) or the owner or the passenger?

There will probably be court battles where all of these parties fight it out in order to determine who is ultimately liable. Along the way there will be more innovations and more laws passed. It will be interesting to see how these new dynamics interact, however. And ultimately, I hope to not be a part of  the precedence setting incident that defines these new liabilities.