For years, experts have forecasted that our streets will soon be filled by autonomous, self-driving vehicles. Rather than sitting behind the wheel and worrying about traffic and other motorists, we will be able to ride in comfort in our vehicles while watching television, surfing the Internet, or catching up on emails—all as the vehicle safely drives itself. While the full impact of autonomous vehicles remains a mystery, eventually, they are likely to revolutionize the way we travel.
One thing that is certain, however, is that as we adapt to self-driving vehicles (and they adapt to us), there will be many bumps in the road. Autonomous vehicles may lead to accidents, injuries, and other problems we do not even envision, including hacking and data privacy concerns. An additional question is who is even liable for an accident involving a self-driving vehicle: The driver? The manufacturer? The software provider? As the autonomous vehicle industry goes through its growing pains, it may face a flurry of lawsuits in state and federal courts, including class action lawsuits.
Manufacturers, dealers, and even companies providing support parts or accessories for autonomous vehicles may face significant class action lawsuits after these vehicles take to the roadways. Potential classes of plaintiffs may include drivers of autonomous vehicles who claim they were injured in accidents, pedestrians who claim they were struck by an autonomous vehicle, or even individuals who claim that their personal information that they uploaded to their vehicle was hacked and stolen. Defendants may have numerous defenses available to them at the class certification stage to defend against class action liability. One potential argument is that the proposed class should not be certified because individual issues predominate over class issues. The court will need to evaluate potential deficiencies in the technology with each class plaintiff’s vehicle, a potentially difficult task, in order to determine liability. Another possible argument may be that the court will need to conduct individual inquiries in order to determine the damages of each class plaintiff—especially those who claim they were physically injured.
In recent months, Congress has attempted to prepare for a potential flurry of class actions against businesses in the autonomous vehicle industry. Specifically, the AV START Act would allow autonomous vehicle manufacturers to include mandatory arbitration clauses in their terms of service. The proposed legislation would reduce the financial risks and potential legal costs to defend against class actions by potentially avoiding them altogether. While some members of Congress and consumer advocates have complained that consumers will not read the fine print and that mandatory arbitration clauses will prevent them having their day in court, the Supreme Court has displayed a preference toward enforcing mandatory arbitration clauses.
It is unknown whether Congress will pass legislation in 2020 to reduce the potential burden on the autonomous vehicle industry posed by future class action lawsuits. The 2020 presidential election and the future makeup of the Supreme Court will likely impact any future legislation. Federal legislation affecting the autonomous vehicle industry that specifically addresses class action lawsuits and mandatory arbitration clauses is an issue that both businesses and consumers should monitor in 2020 and likely in the years ahead.