New York Personal Injury Law Blog » Car Accidents, Car Collisions, Class Action, Google, Google Cars


December 23rd, 2014

Will Google Cars Eviscerate the Personal Injury Bar?


Google’s prototype released on December 22, 2014.
Image credit, Google.

I hadn’t given much thought to Google’s self-drive cars until they unveiled a prototype yesterday. They call this vehicle “the first real build of our self-driving vehicle prototype.”

And it occurs to me that these drivable computers will result in both many lawsuits regarding them, and simultaneously eviscerate a significant portion of the personal injury bar.

First off, some of these cars will crash and people will get injured. And you can bet your last dollar that there will be lawsuits and some class actions regarding that, with many fingers pointed Google’s way.

The potential for error in such heavily software-dependent systems is extraordinary when combined with the limitless potential for collisions. There will be new meaning to the idea of computer crashes.

Google is working hard on that problem, having driven its test vehicles 700,000 miles already in the Bay Area to prevent this.


The issue of lawsuits regarding the cars will, I think, be vastly overwhelmed by a huge reduction in collisions that result from the most common forms of human error. Each year about 30,000 people will die in the U.S. from car crashes, and about two million are injured, and that is after considering a significant drop in fatalities from safer cars and seat belts over the prior decades.

Aside from the role that alcohol plays in being a cause of collisions (not accidents), many are the result of a simple failure to stop in time that results in a rear-endng, or sideswipes from changing lanes without looking, or hitting the unseen pedestrian.

The last generation’s distractions of radio-tuning, cigarette lighting, and screaming back-seat kids has now been supplemented with email, texts, phone talk and GPS devices. Calling distracted driving an epidemic seems like a cliché, but if you’ve glanced into the windows of your fellow drivers, which my kids tend to do and point this out to me  —  “multi-tasking” drivers is another phrase for distracted and inattentive.

And what will those new-fangled cars do? They will see the other cars/pedestrians and slow down or stop despite the driver being lost in thought elsewhere. Or drunk. Or asleep.

With human error crashes reduced by software that automatically stops or slows the car, the number of broken bodies and cars will be reduced. The number of deaths will be reduced. Your insurance premiums will be (theoretically) reduced.

And that means the need for my services as a personal injury attorney will be reduced.  (Likewise reduced will be the need for  trauma health teams and emergency rooms, not to mention car body shops.)

Has anyone ever cheered being put out of business? I am. Because I drive, too.

I’ve been hit in the rear at least four times in the last few years. Every one no doubt the result of an inattentive driver. Thankfully, all of those were minor and they never resulted in an injury. But my lack of injury is simply my good luck.

This is not to say that there won’t be downsides to driving a Google car, not the least of which is the total abdication of the last vestiges of privacy. Google will know exactly where you are going and how long you have been there, and be more than happy to sell that information to anyone with the Benjamins to spend.

Or give that data to the government when it comes a’ callin’, as the government most surely will.

But from a raw safety standpoint, I am left with no other choice than to cheer the company on. Go ahead, Google, make my day by bringing on safety and putting us personal injury attorneys out of business.

OK, you won’t actually put me out of business because, by the time it becomes a mass market item, I will no doubt be retired.

But if I were fresh out of law school, this isn’t the field into which I would head.

Update 1/14/15: See  The Google Car Is A Huge Threat To The Auto Industry (Business Insider)


23 thoughts on “Will Google Cars Eviscerate the Personal Injury Bar?

  1. The car, as it’s planned now, would be a colossal flop, and will never happen as a mass market item.

    From a legal point of view (since this is a legal blog, not a tech blog) it seems like the lack of steering wheel and pedals really puts Google in the hot seat when it comes to liability. If something should go wrong, it’s all on them. It’s almost impossible for them to say the driver was at fault, if the driver has no controls.

    But it’s the lack of controls that will keep people from wanting to have anything to do with this. When reading about the car, what came to mind was a scene from The Right Stuff. When the Mercury 7 astronauts were shown a prototype of the capsule that was to carry them to space, they rebelled. The lack of controls or a window on the fully automated vehicle meant they couldn’t function as pilots, and would make them, as Chuck Yeager famously said, “Spam in a can” if something went wrong. I think the Google car will get a similar response. While the idea of an automated car is interesting, people will still want controls.

    Then there’s the crazy idea that the car will stop if it detects a person in the way. You think traffic moves slowly in the city now, just wait! The threat of getting turned into roadkill is what keeps people on the sidewalk waiting for the light to turn red so they can cross. What do you think will happen when people know cars will came to a screeching halt when they step out in front of it?

    • Dan: I suspect the technology will be incrementally adopted. It starts with warnings about cars in the blind spots or if you are closing too fast, graduates to auto slowing/stopping. Our generation would never accept that idea of a driverless car. But that doesn’t mean that the safety improvements won’t be coming and have a big impact.

  2. It sounds like you’ve nicely hedged your life choices. In a dangerous world, you make money. If things become safer, you don’t make as much money, but you live in a better world. Well played, Eric.

    • In a dangerous world, you make money. If things become safer, you don’t make as much money, but you live in a better world. Well played, Eric.

      Hey, I drive too. And more importantly, my kids will also one day.

  3. Techie here. I did not see the announcement of the 12/22 “release”, so maybe my point is moot, but it was my understanding that the technology could not yet deal with snow on the roadways, neither from a navigation nor a drivability standpoint. So, no fear for now, fellow Nor’Easterners. You’ll still need to be on the lookout for the speeding SUV idiots who think that 4-wheel driving traction also means better braking action on ice and snow. Ain’t necessarily so.

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  5. Being pedantic, software error arises from human error. With widespread use of self-driven cars there will have to be some level of central control. I anticipate glitches or hacking leading to tens of thousands of vehicles being stranded for hours, a situation similar to being stuck on a roller coaster. Also, in the interests of safety and constraints programmed by central control, the pace of traffic will slow considerably leading to much longer journeys. Our ice cream will melt by the time we get it home and we’ll be again singing “Get Me To The Church On Time.”

  6. Let’s not forget, if this prediction comes true it will impact the defense bar as much as it impacts the plaintiff’s bar. There are plenty of smaller defense firms in NY that almost exclusively defend auto PI claims and they wouldn’t survive a world with self driving vehicles. This is just my guess, but I suspect that plaintiff’s lawyers, being generally more entrepreneurial, will find a way to adapt to and survive this change. It’s the defense bar that is likely to struggle mightily with it.

    • Joe:

      you are correct that this effects the defense bar as well. But I take issue with this:

      This is just my guess, but I suspect that plaintiff’s lawyers, being generally more entrepreneurial, will find a way to adapt to and survive this change. It’s the defense bar that is likely to struggle mightily with it.

      Defense lawyers are no more or less entrepreneurial than plaintiffs’ lawyers. Both will need to find other lines of work due to what I believe will e a substantial reduction in the need for these services.

      But only when auto stop/slow technology becomes part of a substantial number of cars (10%?) will we start to see any real effects, and that is still a long way off.

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  9. I wasn’t aware that Google cars have no driver controls, and am very surprised. It’s one thing for the car to navigate itself from one well-defined point to another along well-defined roads, but how can it know what route to take off-road, or where the roads are not on the map, or exactly where in the driveway or scenic vista or parking lot the driver wants to park?

  10. Wrong conclusion. Completely wrong. Driverless cars will create MORE lawyer hours on automobile cases delving into technology foibles while attempting to fleece deep pockets. Who wouldn’t want a piece of Google, for instance? The lawyers will blame the technology for any kind of mishap since there is no driver to blame. Precedence is the lawsuit pigpile on Toyota for never-proven technology glitches that caused unexpected acceleration. The lawyers used the incontestable theory that “an unknown and unfound software bug caused the acceleration.” Good luck, $GOOG.

    • The number and amount of products liability cases is vastly dwarfed by run-of-the-mill hit-in-the-rear and intersection collisions that take place due to driver inattention.

      As I noted, there will no doubt be suits regarding the technology — it appears that car manufacturers can’t even get air bags right — but that in the end, there will be more safety, less injuries, and fewer need for suits. Which is a good thing.

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    • Here is evidence that you need not (yet) fear the demise of the human driver.

      I don’t think we will see a driverless car in my lifetime. But I do think that we will see many of the anti-collision technologies that they are now experimenting with. Cars with collision warning systems are already on the road and the next step would be, I think, automatic slowing.

  12. As it happens, I moderate on a site for professional truck drivers (yes, I have a CDL). Here is one such product, already available, that they discussed in 2012:

    Reviews were mixed. It is, for example, strictly straight ahead line of sight, so it does not “see” over a hill crest or around a curve. It is not sensitive to road conditions such as black ice, and could send an 18-wheeler into a jack knife attitude by a poor automated decision. It cannot correctly deal with the idiot 4-wheeler (i.e. “car”) drivers who slip just in front of speedy big rigs in order to take the next exit (a common trucker complaint). But it does promise to “mitigate” collisions, and for large firms that adopt it, it might mitigate some accident claims by its proactive stance.

    But I tend to agree that after enough baby steps, and possibly using quantum computing (which, I’m told, allows for statistical “maybe” as well as yes and no) and, sadly, a few well publicized failures from which much will be learned, that driving automation is bound to happen.

    I miss the 1948 VW I had in college.

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